May 9, 2014

The final frontier of book-making: Elisabeth Tonnard’s “Invisible Book”


Image via Wikipedia.

Image via Wikipedia.

As the market for physical books shrinks and shifts, writers, publishers, and assorted others have been experimenting with the possibilities of the form. How about die-cutting your way through it? Or turning it into a loose set of accordion pages in a box? Making a painstaking facsimile of a worn and tattered pulp edition, or a staggeringly decadent book-plus-moon-rock package?

Or just make it disappear altogether? That, at least, is what artist Elisabeth Tonnard, has done with her “Invisible Book” project. Tonnard’s book has many of the qualities of these other books that draw special attention to their form: it’s only available in a limited edition, prestigious museums have acquired it for their collections, and best of all, it has a history, memorialized in a postcard set that records important moments in the Invisible Book’s past, from “an early discussion about the book in 1654, to Robert Walser’s sterling 1925 review and Diane Simpson’s legendary marathon reading in 1980.”

But actually, as its name suggests, the Invisible Book doesn’t exist. On Tonnard’s website, it’s represented only by a blue outline around a rectangle that looks like it could enclose a two-page spread. Could, but doesn’t.

Clearly, this project is a commentary on the nature of ebooks, which are made more ontologically slippery by the fact that even their ownership is in question. Tonnard’s Invisible Book is actually more like a physical book in that respect: you buy it through her website, one copy per customer, for €0, but then you can also re-sell it. Tonnard directs would-be buyers of additional copies or first editions to Ebay’s German site, “where artist Joachim Schmid is occasionally offering for sale the first edition copies he bought immediately after the launch of the book (note the auctions are not always up).”

Indeed, it may not be all that different from other books, both electronic and physical: in a post for the London Review of Books blog, Gill Partington, who bought a copy of the Invisible Book, writes that

I can’t read it or put it on the shelf. But perhaps it isn’t such an anomaly: I often buy books I don’t read, and some of them exist only in the non-space of my computer hard drive. Tonnard’s book isn’t non-existent or imaginary. Just invisible.

Tonnard’s project is also a dig at the book business—offered, she writes, “at the lowest price possible… The book was made as a reaction to both the trend of decreasing book sales and the trend of increasing expectations from audiences.”

Which suggests that the only way books can meet both publishers’ and readers’ expectations in these strapped times is by being absolutely free of costs on both ends, and also, not incidentally, free of content. This is depressing: though Tonnard’s sales history for the book is probably pure invention (she claims that the first edition of 100 copies sold out on its first day), I wouldn’t be surprised if her “sales” weren’t that far away from real sales figures for some of the tougher-to-sell book categories.

On the plus side, buyers of Tonnard’s creation have found themselves an unassailable reference source. Who, really, is going to argue with you if you say “I read it in the Invisible Book”? They might not believe you, or might back away, clutching their hardbacks and newspapers and smartphones and e-readers, but how they can contradict you? After all, you’ve got Robert Walser himself in your corner! Walser, king of the ambiguous, indeterminate, and yet strangely confident, of whom W. G. Sebald once wrote: “He did not, I believe, even own the books that he had written.”


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