Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Book lust: The Codex Seraphinianus

The Believer is not merely a magazine, to me it also serves the role of a cool friend who tells me about music, books, etc I would never have known about otherwise. You can't really put a price on it, but they did, and I subscribe. I'm not really as sad and lonely as that makes me sound, honest. The point is, I love that magazine.

In a recent issue there was an article about the Codex Seraphinianus, a surreal and puzzling book by the Italian artist Luigi Serafini. Today, in general use, 'surreal' means something horrible you don't believe is happening. 'Being in a car crash, it was so surreal.' 'September 11, that was just surreal.' 'Spending the morning on the phone with tech support, it was surreal'. But this is surreal in the original artistic sense of something being mind-bending bewildering, art that defies rationality or understanding. According to wikipedia, surrealism is a movement that oh, I'm just playing, I'm not going to quote wikipedia here.

The CODEX is an encyclopedia for an imaginary world, complete with an entirely made-up language (which no-one has managed to figure out in the 25 years since it first came out) and base-21 (fingers, toes, and nose?) number system. But this imaginary world is not full of elves and hobbits and magic jewelry. A couple doing the beast with two backs thing morphs into an alligator. Strange mushroom-headed individuals fit skeletons with skins hanging from hooks. Trees uproot themselves and swim across lakes. A special bowl can be plugged into the wall, and it will chew your food, so you can drink it thru a straw. And, a personal favorite, on the signal, capsules walking around on human legs burst open to reveal...angry leopards.

Some nice person scanned the entire thing and put the pictures on flickr, but I wanted to see it for myself. Pictures on computer monitors can suck. They are small, they lack detail. One doesn't feel the paper or the weight of the book. If you read things on the computer, you are cheating yourself, unless it's a rinky-dink blog or such.

I first checked with IU's Lilly Library, the place in Bloomington to go if you're looking for rare books. The helpful person I spoke with told me they didn't have the book, and actually, no library in Indiana had it. That was not too surprising, as the book is rare and has a tendency to disappear from libraries. Copies can go for $300-$500. The guy told me I could probably get it through an inter-library loan, so I called the Monroe County Public Library, and they found a copy in the library of a college in Tennessee (I won't say which one, don't want any of my Tennesseean readers ripping off the library to make a few bucks on eBay).

Last week, I got an email notice that the book was in, so I grabbed it and was immediately glad I'd gone through the trouble. I saw many thing's I'd missed in the reprinted pictures and the flickr images I'd seen. Flipping pages is much smoother than pointing and clicking (the lack of comprehensible page numbers makes navigation tricky, but there is a bit of logic to the way the book's laid out). Leisurely flipping through the pages and taking in the sometimes mind-blowing images has been fun.

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