The Alphabets Alive! exhibit has opened at the University of Oxford, and it is a veritable rhapsody of bookish splendor.
The grandeur associated with the Bodleian Library runs deep and long. “Pictures at an Exhibition” is a soul-stirring symphony by Mussorsky that my mother used to play on our hi-fi stereo when I was a child. Its opening strains became the soundtrack of every visit I made to this exhibit during my weeklong stay in Oxford from my lodging around the corner at Jesus College. In a feat of sublime orchestration, this collection of books pays homage to the alphabet, that most humble set of abstract symbols with which ephemeral words and stories find their most enduring form, in books. In the Alphabets Alive! exhibit, that means artist books, and if that term is a mystery to you, perhaps this page will offer some insight.
Grand indeed was the feeling I had whenever I walked into the Weston Library, known at one time as the New Bodleian Library. To see all the remarkable books, and my own book, The First Writing, among them, was frankly breathtaking. It is displayed just as I always wished it would be, stretched out in the case so that all the pages can be seen at once, as if looking at a cave wall. During the week I stayed in Oxford I visited the dark room with the many display cases of books every day.
Of course, accompanying all this grandeur was plenty of euphoria. Before the noble promenade came to mind, I was humming “I Could Have Danced All Night,” Eliza Doolittle’s fairy tale song from the Broadway production of “My Fair Lady,” another LP my mother often put on the turntable. The night of the artists’ reception was a magical evening for me. It was my Cinderella moment, and in my sensible shoes, I could indeed have danced with the extraordinary books all night.
Now the curator, Robert Bolick, has published the auxiliary material and splendid studio photos on his website, Book on Books, in a form that references the names of the cases in the exhibit.
Here is the most complete set of pictures I could harvest from the many hundreds I’ve taken since arriving in England a couple of weeks ago. I’ve captioned the photos with the names of their display cases,
so you can search for them on the Books on Books website, a wonderfully comprehensive online resource.
PLEASE NOTE: In my haste to post this while I was still on English soil, just before I flew home, I shortchanged the incredibly thorough work Robert Bolick did with this collection by simply putting the link to the overall page. Now, fully recovered from jet lag, I have linked each captioned photo of the display cases below to his page dedicated to the contents of the case, so that all you need to do is click on the photo to be taken directly to the details for each of the books shown. It was something I couldn’t quite manage on my iPad, but now they are all linked properly. My photos are sequenced in the order you would see them as you enter the exhibit and move to the right and, returning on the second long wall, go back and forth between the standing cases and the wall cases.
The Books on Books site shows the case he calls the Proscholium. I somehow missed this in the entrance to the Old Bodleian Library across the street.
I have added the missing right side photo of the Forms and Structures case.
I added a link for the AI Alphabet Poster which excited some controversy, invariably dying down when the political reason for omitting the letter Z is revealed.
Posting this profusion of photos is my way of acknowledging the many artists who created these bookworks over the centuries and up to the present day. Every time I have been included in an exhibit, I have wanted to see how my book looked. Some were difficult to photograph in the low light of the gallery and reflections in the glass. I hope there will be some professionally made photographs to come.