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Invisible Books from the Library of Babel is a conceptual installation. The exhibit is informed by my research on books as media objects, and on the cultural presence of books in contemporary Western society. There is much public discussion about the effects of specific kinds of media (and their content), and their presence as media in our culture (and not just as content). For example, we readily distinguish media and content in television, film, and computers, as well as in art media, such as paintings, prints, sculpture, photographs, installations, etc. Rarely, however, are books discussed in this same way; we tend to ignore the object, and focus almost exclusively on the content. While we might fetishize the book, we also maintain a rather amorphous understanding of “book” beyond its physical boundaries (we claim, for instance, to read “books” online, or to listen to them on our car stereo).
The late 20th-century media theorist Marshall McLuhan suggested that “media work us over completely,” that media, perhaps even more so than their content, “massage” us to the point that we understand our physical world, and our relationship to it and to ourselves, almost exclusively through the media we engage in. Media frame our paradigms and our worldview, even our self-conceptions. Most importantly, to paraphrase McLuhan, when our media change, we change.
We are situated historically at the end of a multi-millennial, bibliocentric media environment. Hundreds of generations have been “worked over” by the medium of the book, our cultural constructs framed by this elastic and remarkably accommodating media object, yet we are entirely unaware of its effects. The book is invisible. What if the content of books was obscured or cloaked in some way and we were left only with the information of the medium itself, but without the tools or practice to recognize its import? It would appear, of course, as if we had nothing before us. Such is the central conceit of this exhibit.
My muse for this project, my constant companion, is the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, a giant of 2oth-century international literature, and incidentally a long-time director of significant Argentine libraries. The conceptual model, structure, language, and even some of the syntax in the exhibit’s narrative is indebted not only to Borges’s writings, but also to his concept of books as metaphors and as insidious presence, covertly and even perversely molding and manipulating our perceptions and conceptions, leaving us with the illusory belief that we are the agents of our own change.
The main sources for this project are three short stories by Borges, “The Library of Babel,” Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain” (April March and Statements, Axaxaxas mlö, Combed Thunder, and History of the Land of Uqbar). Other sources for the exhibit are George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, and the entry on Berkeley in the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Tendency towards Existence); Ian Caldwell’s and Dustin Thomason’s novel The Rule of Four (Combed Thunder); Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion: a Historical Romance (A History of Nebraska); the weekly satirical newspaper, The Onion (Entropolis); and an actual email correspondence between Rick Krause and Charlie Huenemann (The Colonel’s Portentous Cat Unsays).
Finally, I am also indebted to my colleague Timothy Murray, head of Special Collections at the University of Delaware, for implanting the idea for this exhibit in my brain many years ago. For almost two decades the notion of invisible books has festered in my imagination, and now that it is made manifest, perhaps I may have some peace.