Burning Books
Burning Books & the Fires of Reinvention

by William L. Fox

. . . The thing is
certain books in the hands of talented publishers can become more than a vehicle for text, and can become instead a complicated and “telling” artifact of our culture, an integrated object that provokes the reader to more actively participate in the meaning of the text. Such books breed loyalty across the culture, their titles passed along by word-of-mouth; they assume cult status and lead the edge of the culture as it propagates itself through time. . . .

There are only a handful of small presses at any given moment publishing such works. We are fortunate that Burning Books is among them. The press was started in 1979 by writer Melody Sumner Carnahan, as editor, and artist/filmmaker Michael Sumner, as book designer, a partnership that over the years has benefited from significant collaborations with typographer and book artist Kathleen Burch. Burning Books has produced only [thirty-five books as of 2021] but they are important, affordable, and often sublime manifestations of text.

Examining several of their books, it’s possible to discern an underlying structural device informing the aesthetic of Burning Books. . . .

The Time Is Now [first edition, 1982] presents eleven stories in a spiral-bound format, akin in size to a college-ruled notebook. Each of the stories is divided by tabs, which of itself would be merely a device, though further evocative of the “theme” dividers familiar to students. But, each tab bears a symbol, such as a chair, lightning bolt, high-heeled shoe, or keyhole. The twelve stories are also divided in the table of contents by defining the first set of five as “out” stories, to six “in” for the second half, a schematic for emotive classification. The verso of each divider page bears an illustration, the eleven forming their own narrative as a visual story. Every page of each story bears a line of text printed vertically from bottom to top of the outside edge and screened back so the type is gray. These vertical lines reflect obliquely upon the stories — but . . . but. . . .

At the end of the book a glossary of the tab symbols appears (e.g. “keyhole: voyeurism, fear, a secret channel in or out”) followed by an index of subtext terms, such as “angle of the light,” “invocation of trust,” and “volition.” Each indexed term then displays one or more of the symbols, accompanied by one of the vertical lines from the text, now printed in regular horizontal position, a recombinant poem and commentary.

The stories by Melody Sumner Carnahan are psychologically dense, perceptive, and challenging in their own right. By adding the vertical lines of text, she and Kathleen Burch, as typographer, link the stories to each other both literally and metaphorically. The glossary and index multiply the cross-references to an almost unheard-of layering of resonance. The effect is dizzying and musical, linguistically and visually resonant, and yet as orderly as a Bach concerto or an aleatory piece by John Cage.

This tension between the horizontal narrative and the vertical stitching of a meta-book runs throughout many of the Burning Books publications. The guests go in to supper., released in 1986, is a less visually overt production, though the typography is complex; seven composers who work extensively with words — John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, Robert Ashley, and Charles Amirkhanian among them — are interviewed and selected scores reprinted. It’s a relatively straightforward, if immensely intelligent and lively anthology, but. . . . There is Charles Shere’s introduction to the guests printed before each of their appearances, a different kind of tabbing system which seats them around the table. Then there are the interviews conducted by the publishers, which not only carefully piece together the relationships between music and text, but food and art in another narrative loop, another example of the motto slyly appearing in the front or back of all their books: Alere flammam, “to feed the flame.” Hence, “Burning” Books: food, art, and books are all taken by the publishers to nourish culture and spirit.

A high point of complexity in the history of Burning Books was the creation of Indicia . . . a romance by Kathleen Burch, which the press released in 1990 after numerous production challenges. Billed as a game, a book, a divining, and “a truth table,” the Indicia box contains 111 cards divided into realm, image, and face suites, with the image set further partitioned into story-line, elemental, and transformation cards. A monograph on the history of cards, both the major arcana of the Tarot and the minor arcana of what we know as the gaming deck, sets out the context for understanding the game-as-divination, while the instruction brochure, with a chart of cards showing their characteristics and “spheres of operation,” completes the package. At first glance, the instructions are daunting, but simple enough to actually implement; slowly, both vertical and horizontal patterns of cards appear before the reader in response to a question posed beforehand.

The results appear to be inevitably disturbing, no matter the question. Cards such as the May Queen, Il Picaro (King of the Road), Le Trompe d’Oeil (The Fooled Eye), Duality, and Raptor of the Deep draw from medieval, renaissance, baroque, and modern traditions, as well as from the mind of the author herself. The text cards are quotes from writers as diverse as T. S. Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Gertrude Stein. In what could otherwise have become a nauseating stew of faux-gypsy stereotypes, the sardonic and sometimes exuberant quotes and the stringency of the rules more or less guarantee results that are at least poetic and sometimes potentially profound. In and of itself, Indicia is worth a hand or two; but in the overall structural examination of the press, it’s an unexpected revelation of the deep connections within Western literary traditions among cards and pages, chance and narrative, voice and the will to power.

Burning Books returned to the codex form in 1991 with a compilation of Robert Ashley’s libretto to his opera Perfect Lives [forthcoming in paperback from The Dalkey Archive]. Like The guests go in to supper., its contents are embedded in a relatively discreet design, though the patterning of the text is multi-layered. Complex typography is again evident, representing changes in voice and insertion of the chorus, but the doorways into the pattern are the graphic dividers between the seven “songs” that comprise the piece. A single geometrical feature per divider page — a circle, line, triangle, and so forth — is picked out in black from the master figure on the front cover which combines them all. Each feature represents the shape of one of the songs, based on the composer’s metrical templates, which in turn had governed the camera movements during each song when the opera was produced for television. Thus, the songs are connected not only through the music and the characters, but through the graphic narrative as well.

Within an ongoing practice of co-publishing, Burning Books [Carnahan and Sumner] in 1994 worked with EAST-WEST Cultural Studies in New York City to produce Helen Keller or Arakawa, a novel of fictive speculations by Madeline Gins, an artist, writer, and longtime collaborator of artist Arakawa. The protagonists of the fictions, principally Helen Keller, Arakawa, and Gins, engage philosophical and cognitive issues, often sounding as if they’re actually describing paintings by Arakawa, whose diagrammatic text works investigate the same issues. The reader’s suspicions are confirmed by the italicized footnotes in the outer margins, which are titles of pieces by the artist under reference; these are then conflated in the index, much as the subtext was in The Time Is Now. Individually and collectively, the pieces are experiments in narrative flow and perception, and the typography veers from serif to sans serif, bold to italic to extended to plain body copy in a corollary range of expression. Michael Sumner’s design sets the opening pages of each chapter in a larger type, beginning with a capital rubric, and including a translation of the first letter as offset braille, a small but important extension of the “sense” of the work.

A second collection of stories by Melody Sumner Carnahan, 13, appeared in 1995 [Michael Sumner’s design and typography]. As the first twelve of the thirteen stories proceed, a clock face appears in the lower right hand corner of each recto page of narrative, the hands moving in a number of minutes per page determined by the overall length of each story, the clock running cumulatively through twelve hours. Simultaneously, on each title page a column of the numbers one through thirteen, screened to gray, ascends; the number of each successive story is printed in black. Both the numbers and clock faces work as an intermittent flip-text. The thirteenth piece at the end, a meta-fictional parable paradoxically titled “The Centerpiece,” displays a clock without hands that dissolves into a compass face before disappearing. The visual devices are less physical than in The Time Is Now, but no less insistent; the stories and the reader’s awareness are still integrated along a vertical axis at right angles to the horizontal narrative and text lines, and 13 literally carries us optically upward in the elevator shaft of numerals.

Although not a Burning Books imprint, a 1996 publication is an exhibition catalogue from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Steina and Woody Vasulka: Machine Media. Carnahan and Sumner designed and produced it for the Museum, and again, it illustrates the structural metaphor underlying the other books. While a little more than a third of the catalogue is a relatively uncomplicated presentation of the computer- and video-imaging installations and pieces within the exhibition, the three essays analyzing the Vasulka’s work contain an image of elevator doors screened under the text. The doors, themselves a reference to the Steina piece, “In the Land of the Elevator Girls,” progressively close and open and then close again, page by page through the essays. The doors shuttle back and forth like a huge shadow under the horizontal text, a metaphorical machine linking floors, or stories, or lives in the vertical dimension.

The thing is, the book is no more a static entity than language itself. “Book” is, in fact, a set of possibilities for print. It remains a valuable, therefore viable option for the transmission of culture only inasmuch as it is constantly redefined, not only for the purpose of gaining attention on the bookseller’s shelf, but to impel our curiosity and excitement, our attention and pleasure. Burning Books, one of the few publishers who thus renews our engagement with language, will never compete for sales with books from Knopf, or even Chronicle. But the amount of leverage this small publisher exercises in our culture is deservedly large. We are reminded that books don’t compete with computers. These channels are additive to, not subtractive from one another. That will remain true as long as publishers like Burning Books create books that continually reinvent the possibilities.

—William L. Fox, Los Angeles, October 1996

[This text excerpted in 2011 from Fox’s original longer essay.]