July 19, 2012

Somewhere in France, the Anglomaniacs meet the Germans: Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books Project


Nina Katchadourian is an artist who photographs the covers or spines of certain books next to each other, so that the titles form a connected series. Such as:

Katchadourian has a new series in this ongoing work, the Sorted Books Project, in the current issue of Asymptote, using the M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings at the Delaware Art Museum, and a slideshow, from the exhibit currently at the museum, Once Upon a Time in Delaware/In Quest of the Perfect Book, is viewable here. She describes the process of working with the Sawyer Collection:

The collection comprises over two thousand books, acquired on the basis of their cover design. It was an opportunity to take a close look at the culture and history of the United States between approximately 1870 and 1920. Fiction was dominated by themes of travel, romance, science, the automobile, rural American farm life, and the West. The Old World also hovers around the popular imagination in the many books about knights, kings, and European history. A visual and linguistic shift takes place between prim Victorian bindings and the racy dust jackets of books thirty years later. Spectacularly gilded covers reflect the wealth of the United States during certain periods, and austere designs take over during times of belt-tightening. I noticed a curious surge in late nineteenth-century fiction romanticizing Native Americans and despaired when I realized how this coincided with their violent displacement and decimation.

The enigmatic titles of earlier times make for some good combinations—if you’re an Aurorarama fan, I can recommend the group, “An Unsocial Socialist”, “Adrift on an Ice Pan”, “At the North Pole.” And there’s some pure visual play on slide #6.

This is a game one can clearly play at home, and I have to admit it beats my “wrestler name” book title game, where you take a book title and place it between the author’s first and last names, thereby creating their “wrestler name”. I’ll relinquish Henry “The Reverberator” James and Kurt “Mother Night” Vonnegut to the ages.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.