Non-Books, Counter-Books, and Not-Books

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Non-Books, Counter-Books, and Not-Books

Sometimes book-lovers start imagining books beyond books. First, take Larry McMurtry:

I take it that a non-book is a publication in book form that need not and should not be read. Life is, after all, short, sweet, and uncertain—the last thing it should be wasted on is a non-book. The publishers who subsist on non-books recognize this truth and design their publications in a manner guaranteed to minimize such vagrant readability as they might have. Weak typefaces prevail, and a lavish use of well-printed pictures carry the entranced looker past whatever text there may be.[1]

This reminds me of a passage from Borges:

The books themselves are also odd. Works of fiction are based on a single plot, which runs through every imaginable permutation. Works of natural philosophy invariably include thesis and antithesis, the strict pro and con of a theory. A book which does not include its opposite, or “counter-book,” is considered incomplete.[2]

And finally from Albert Mobilio’s recent piece “The Bookness of Not-Books” in The Paris Review:

Our reaction to these artists’ books moves along the continuum between seeing and reading. Included are Barry Moser’s wood engravings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which could be said to fall into the more common category of illustrated books. These images serve to enhance the text, to make our reading experience more literal, more detailed, and perhaps more comprehensible. (Of course, many argue that such visual aids, like film adaptations, in fact encumber the imagination.) This sort of book—at least in its mass-market edition—is meant to be handled and read, its images checked against our own visualizations. When the art part of the book—the possessive in artists’ books is telling—becomes increasingly salient, the experience of the text can become subordinate to the experience of the visual and even end up almost incidental. (In The End of the World as Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame, Blaise Cendrars’s words, when exploded in a variety of typefaces and colors, are hardly distinguishable from Fernand Léger’s colliding shapes, which appear throughout the collaborative volume.) These are books and pages intended to be seen but not necessarily read.[3]


[1] Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood. NY: Simon & Schuster. 1987. p. 76.

[2] “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Translated by Alastair Reid. Ficciones. 1941. NY: Grove Press. Evergreen Edition. 1963. pp. 28-29.

[3] “The Bookness of Not-Books.” The Paris Review. June 22, 2017.

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