When is a book a book…

In an attempt to expand my students’ thinking about books and writing, every Monday (so far there have been only three) I bring in a book which pushes the notion and structure of what is a book. We spend a short bit of time discussing the attributes of the “Show and Tell” and how it stretches our ideas about what a book is. I have a personal collection of such books and I enjoy sharing these discoveries.

So far:

Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1: Published in 1963, this book is a stack of 149 pages that a reader can shuffle in any order and then read. Since the sixties, this notion has found itself in some children’s books where you can read chapters in different orders. However Sapporta’s original approach remains baffling yet intriguing, surprising and actually works. Brilliantly conceived, the publishing house Visual Editions, has just republished this work with a new introduction and packaging.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes: This is a remarkable book where Foer has excised words from his favorite book, Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, only one of two books still in existence by this author. Schulz’s other works were totally destroyed in World War II. The haunting nature of the missing text, yet the new meaning rising out of the excised version is poignant and mystical and the whole process of reading what is left for us somehow becomes a sacred and esoteric act.

The Journey is the Destination–The Journals of Dan Eldon: Dan Eldon was a young war photographer for Reuters who got caught up in the turmoil in Somalia in the early 1990s. Eldon and two other journalists ran to cover the UN bombing of a house that was believed to be the compound of General Aidid, who challenged the presence of UN and US troops in Somalia in 1993. The local citizens were appalled at the carnage and stoned Eldon and the other two journalists as a protest for the bombing. The difficult and pathetic irony is that the three of them were there to expose this bombing and were on the side of the protesters. This book is the last journal of Dan Eldon, filled with drawings, photographs, collage, musings, memoir, pockets, fold-outs. It’s really an amazing glimpse inside the head and heart of an incredibly creative, imaginative, activist, and profound young man.

Of course for each book I share, I have the students put down the bibliographic information in MLA format in their own journals. Underneath I have them describe the book they have seen and add a statement or two about their personal response to it. (In this way, when we get to Annotated Works Cited lists during our research project, I won’t have to teach it. They will already know the drill.)

Future books on my list are:

  • Anne Carson’s Nox
  • Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout
  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
  • Artwork of Brian Dettmer
  • Some of McSweeney’s various published formats

And, if any of you blog readers have any suggestions, I would be most grateful. The idea is that these books should somehow push the notion of what makes a book a book, that the structure and format, perhaps even content, of these books should somehow be unique and push boundaries of bookmaking and writing.

…There’s a small piece of me that is fully expecting excised research papers this spring…

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25 Responses to When is a book a book…

  1. That is so cool. I wish I could take your class. It sounds awesome! A writer friend of mine raves about the novel “A Void” by Georges Perec. The entire book was written without using the letter “e”. I know this may not fit exactly into what you are looking for, but I wanted to share something. Maybe I would be more knowledgeable if I got to take your class! Thanks for sharing.

    • jyourist says:

      Thanks for reminding me of this book. I believe the original was in french (without “e”s as well) so, imagine the challenging and creative translation job that needed to be done. I have this book in my “to read” pile- very grateful for helping me remember it was there.

  2. Adam says:

    Something to consider for this would be discussing a graphic novel with your class. The first one that I thought of is Watchmen, which may or may not be appropriate for your class (you didn’t give a grade level in this post, Watchmen would definitely not be appropriate for younger classes) but there are plenty of other graphic novels you could pick from. A discussion of the merits of storytelling in a fairly new medium (definitely new when compared to the novel) would be interesting.

    • jyourist says:

      So many of my kids read graphic novels so it hadn’t crossed my mind to focus on it as pushing the boundaries of what makes a book a book. But you’re right– this would make a terrific discussion. My students are 8th graders so perhaps exploring something more manga, which many of them love to copy anyway, would be a good gateway in.

  3. Mrs. Chili says:

    Are you familiar with the Griffin and Sabine books?


    They take place as a series of letters and postcards between two characters. One literally removes letters from envelopes, the artwork is STUNNING, and the reader is left with a number of intriguing questions on the nature of reality and, perhaps, sanity.

  4. Jerome Bloom says:


  5. Jerome Bloom says:




  6. Jerome Bloom says:









  7. Amber West says:

    I love this! I had never heard of these selections and have to go find them now. Thank you for sharing.

  8. What a wonderful idea to introduce your students to a wide range of books!

    Dan Eldon was a friend of mine – and I help run the foundation started in his honor by his mother and sister. We strive to teach other people how they can become a creative activist like Dan: to get up, get involved, get active and help change the world. If you or any of your students are interested in learning more about what we do, please visit us at creativevisions.org

    Also, because you’re a teacher, you might be interested to know that we have recently developed a curriculum around Dan’s brand of “Creative Activism” for middle and high school students. We are seeking teachers and schools who might be interested in hearing more about it to provide feedback and eventually implementation.

    Regardless, thank you so much for introducing your students to Dan’s life and art.

    Kind regards,

    • jyourist says:

      Wow. Thanks for the connections. The kids were definitely intrigued by what I was able to share of Dan and his life. Exploring the site and the resources is a terrific way to deepen this first impression.

      We will definitely be in touch as I learn more about your foundation.

      Thank you.

  9. Liz Shaw says:

    What a lovely selection of books. I am dying to find Composition No. 1 now! I’ll second the Griffin and Sabine series. I like the interactivity of that series. I have one of the Dragonology books – it is also like that.

  10. Second to some of McSweeny. Third Griffin & Sabine. Second using some of the book you have created. Second and will loan you some of my TINY TINY books.

  11. Jerome Bloom says:







  12. virginiaw says:

    What wonderful books–thank you so much for sharing them! (I am a fellow SheWrites member.)

  13. Check out Evidence by Candace Jernigan, and God Made Dirt by David Lee. Great artist’s books!

  14. Pingback: When is a book a book II | Nexus

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