Art + Design

Sorted Books

I couldn’t be happier that Sorted Books, my new publication with Chronicle, is now in stores. The “Sorted Books” project began when I was in graduate school, and I never imagined that twenty years later I’d still be adding to the project, let alone publishing a book on it. I couldn’t think of a better 20th birthday party.

The basic methodology behind Sorted Books is not particularly complicated. I work with a collection of books (home libraries, public libraries, and rare books collections have all been among the project sites). By organizing books into clusters so that the titles can be read in sequence, I construct phrases, stories, poems. Many strangers have tried out the project themselves over the past twenty years—I’ve seen blog posts, websites, flickr pages all inspired by “Sorted Books,” done as a kind of homage. Sometimes people refer to it as “spine poetry.”

It’s interesting for me to see these other versions of “Sorted Books,” and there are often some very nice results. But I think the most common misunderstanding about the project is that it’s ONLY about language—that it’s merely about the arranging of words. There is, for me, an absolutely elemental importance to engage the books as physical objects: to consider height, width, heft, color, typeface, texture, gloss, damage, dust jacket. These things communicate in different ways than language can, and to me they are as big as part of how the images are “read” as the words on the spines or covers. One of the clearest examples of this might be A Day at the Beach from “Sorting Shark.” All the books are white except for the moment of “sudden violence.” The last book in the stack, Silence, is the largest of the white books, and I loved that the typeface is just an outline. This context makes it read as hollow, empty, missing. In other words, a bad ending for the swimmer in the story.

I’m always looking for ways to put the physicality of the books front and center. This, to me, is also why “Sorted Books” is really a project about “the book” in the traditional sense. I’m not a technophobe, and I don’t see a tablet or ebook and hear the death knell of the traditional book. But the physical book bears the marks of our handling, which can even convey the level of engagement of our reading. Recently, I’ve been working in a home in Austin, TX doing a new “Sorted Books” project in a family’s home. I often combined the books of the two parents with the books of the three teenaged kids. In the 18-year-old’s room, I found a copy of Alive, the famous 1972 story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes, and whose survivors had to resort to eating the bodies of their deceased fellow passengers to survive. (It’s a gripping story, and one I’ve read myself.) The paperback copy of the book was banged up, mangled from reading, its thick spine bent into a c-curve. The book looked a bit like it had been eaten alive, in fact, a reflection of the voracious way in which I imagined it had been read. I’m not yet sure which book cluster it belongs in, but I grabbed it, because I know a gem like that when I see one. It might even wind up in a cluster with Chronicle’s book about cupcakes.

Nina Katchadourian, Sorted Books

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