Last week, as I was picking up some films from the library of my alma mater, the University of New Hampshire, I stumbled onto their small but feisty exhibition on pop-up books (running through Dec. 15th, should you find yourself there). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t the first thing that greeted me, a pop-up book featuring, of all things, the works of M.C. Escher.
If that wasn’t enough to draw me in, did I mention that the other book at the entrance was pop-up Elvis?
Far more than either one on its own, it was the weird conjunction of these bedfellows that had me riveted, and I got this image in my head of Elvis, the later, drug-addled, obese one, attempting to stagger up an Escher staircase in Graceland and somehow inexplicably winding up below where he started.
Of course I was familiar with pop-up books before wandering into this exhibit. I don’t remember any specific ones from my childhood reading, but I’m positive that I read them and pretty sure I dug them even then. And in reading to my daughter in recent years, I’ve become a big fan of the dazzlingly-imaginative Robert Sabuda books, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland in particular. They were an early gift from a dear friend, and being an impatient person, I couldn’t wait to share these with her even when she was an infant, a bit too young to fully appreciate their literary value and their sometimes-delicate anatomies. Very quickly, the emerald-tinting glasses went AWOL and the deck of cards in Wonderland got chewed up like a puppy toy. But even with the wear-and-tear, the books held their own, offering seemingly endless surprises: rabbit holes to peer down into, houses with limbs protruding from them, either due to “drink me”-growth spurts or witches who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’re not familiar with Sabuda’s stuff, whether or not you have kids I seriously suggest checking it out.
The UNH Exhibition, in which they are referred to as “Movable Books” rather than the more childish term “pop-up” books, featured some items I never would’ve pictured. For instance, there was Andy Warhol’s Index, from 1967, with its tomato sauce can whose lid looks like it might give you tetanus. This was fittingly placed next to a pop-up stiletto from the 2009 book Shoe Love that looked like it could seriously kick your face in if you happened to turn the page too quickly.
There were plenty of examples of more traditional books from history, as well. According to the exhibition, the first such “moving books” date to around 1300, and were adapted for the actual propagation of medical knowledge and physiology, and it was only much later, beginning with the 19th century, that their entertainment value began to be realized. The collection, on loan from Carel Chapman, includes everything from Disney books and cartoonish books about a couple of dogs named Rags and Tatters to the out-and-out racist portrayal of Little Black Sambo in a pop-up version. The exhibit actually does a good job of delving into the history of this character trope, with its roots in southern India that predate its transplantation into America’s racial landscape. Among many other things, there was also a gorgeous biplane, complete with a shadow beneath it on the page where I had to do a double-take to figure out whether it was drawn or cast.
A couple of thoughts occurred to me as I was oohing and ahhing over these book-objects, some cringeworthy and some of which I could only regard with awe and wonder. One was that three dimensions in certain art forms is still a novelty to us, still takes us aback somewhat just as these books do. Even with the increasingly widespread phenomenon of adding a third dimension to films, for instance, it still feels like an enhancement, a literalizing of the sort of immersive experience that the flatter film was trying to create. Is this a generational thing? I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams twice, first in 3D and the second in good ol’ 2D, and while I seriously enjoyed the first version, the second time it felt almost as if my eye-brain was participating more actively, as if we—Werner and I—were collaborating on that third dimension somehow. It invited me in more, somehow. Maybe this is just fanciful, and maybe my memory of having seen it in 3D was superimposing itself, but I’d like to think that maybe that mental reconstruction is part of the fun.
The second thought that occurred to me is that what these “movable books” underscore for me is the effect that I think all literary writers want to have, in some way/shape/form, on their readers: to have something emerging from the page, whether a scene, an image, a character, and, in some cases, language itself. When Bradford Morrow writes in “The Enigma of Grover’s Mill” from his new collection, The Uninnocent, “After Orson Welles had his little joke on America, and Grover’s Mill in particular…my mother, Mildred, changed, spiraled downward. Her dark hazel eyes behind those horn-rim glasses she always wore grew misty and vacant as Christmas approached,” can’t you see it—the spiraling motion, the sliding of the eyes such that their pupils glaze? It’s more “movable” than “pop-up,” admittedly, but there nonetheless. When Gary Lutz writes, “My family: here they come for the last time,” they really are coming, coming right at you, relentless as Romero’s Dead—the family and the words, “full of soft spots and unavailing clarities” indeed. I’ve always felt as though the last paragraph of Rick Moody’s “Demonology” defied both gravity and logic, rising out of its paper body to seize me by the throat. And take another look at Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, with its pages textured with apocalyptic waves of substance—teeth, gravel, static, blood. To me, they’re like 2 1/2 dimensional, i.e. just emergent enough that they don’t interfere with the text but enhance it.
So I’ll make a sweeping generalization, probably an oversimplification, but I feel like part of what makes it possible to get “lost in a book,” in the classic turn of phrase, is that the book comes out to meet us at least partway. It abuts and disrupts our so-called reality, offering us some flaps and levers and, if we’re lucky, some sentences that vex us like Escher stairways. If we’re really lucky, we might even have an Elvis sighting there.
NB: There’s actually a Moving Book Society that holds a biannual conference; the next one is in the fall of 2012 in Utah, so start making your travel arrangements now: http://www.movablebooksociety.org/conference.html.