Designed by the author Joost Grootens, I swear I use no art at all is a secret, work-in-progress love letter to book design. Borderline autobiographical in nature, the author revisits his notes and diagrams of the dozens of printed materials and thousands of pages he published over the years, each meticulously and elaborately detailed.
The author also carefully outlines his design process whilst on the way exploring hidden patterns in the data. Yet before we can enjoy this particular book for ourselves, Grootens requires something of us. He asks only for a small contribution.
He asks that we mark the book.
Many of the pages are bound shut together and so the only way to read them is to potentially risk damaging the content by ripping the seams apart. In order to examine Grootens’ work then, we’re asked to leave clues and traces of our reading. You might pre-emptively roll your eyes at this but the book is not just an artisanal piece by a contemporary graphic designer, as this act of page ripping adds something to the experience rather than becoming an annoying gimmick. First, we’re obliged to slow down and consciously take part in the unbinding. Second, the book is physically different since we began. Our mark is on it for good and so, to some extent, Grootens prepares the material within, but it’s up to us to finish it.
As few books consider how the reader might contribute to the final work, our tools for marking a text with our own ideas might feel limited. Books with small margins or uncomfortable bindings, or perhaps unchallenging, tried and tested designs also do little to help us to remember the book in the future, or for it to stand proudly on our shelves today. On the other hand, we can immediately see the benefits of the actions and decisions of the reader being reflected by the form of the book.
This might be mistaken for sentimentality, but this feeling has little to do with the hallucinogenic loveliness of print. It’s about ownership. It’s about remembering where you were, and perhaps who you were, when you read something.
But reading and marking on the web is different #
We sneak in and we sneak out again. We spend our time between modules and subsections, gliding from one component to the next like ghosts. The little impact that we might have on a site is taken up by the next person that sneaks in after us. Our comments are buried, the archives are hidden and the contents within are nothing short of paralysing.
Things are improving though. What was once considered daring typographically is now the status quo; web fonts are infinitely more powerful and exploratory, the sheer quality of our screens is phenomenally better, whilst those once common and useless elements of a webpage seem to have finally met their maker. As reading experiences on a screen have improved exponentially over the past five years, the same cannot really be said for marking, highlighting and recording a text. Our travels and readings leave only the faintest memory of our presence, our likes and thumbs are now tools for advertisers instead of trying to be the digital equivalent of a pen and pencil. On a similar note, Grootens seems to suggest that the marks and traces of the reader should be left intact. Wistfully hinting at the matter, he argues that:
Our journeys through those voluminous, digital shelves, and all of the sketches and models, our beliefs and perceptions of the current state of things, are left to the wind once compared to our physical libraries teeming with scribbles and notes. And so there’s much work to be done in the spaces between reading, writing and marking on a screen. Yet although it appears our relentless questions will always outpace our ability to answer them, this time is certainly not wasted, as they lead us to the question that we’re forced to ask ourselves: Are these problems the inherent qualities of the medium, or are they the byproducts of unimaginative minds?