The Sorted Books
project began in 1993 years ago and is ongoing. The project has taken place in many different places over the years, ranging from private homes to specialized public book collections. The process is the same in every case: culling through a collection of books, pulling particular titles, and eventually grouping the books into clusters so that the titles can be read in sequence, from top to bottom. The final results are shown either as photographs of the book clusters or as the actual stacks themselves, shown on the shelves of the library they were drawn from. Taken as a whole, the clusters from each sorting aim to examine that particular library's focus, idiosyncrasies, and inconsistencies — a cross-section of that library's holdings.
In 2010, the Delaware Art Museum invited me to work with the books in the M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings. 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 betweeen 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.
I came to know the books in this collection intimately through several visits to the museum but also by working remotely with the online database of the book covers. I printed out about seven hundred small-scale copies and spent months arranging them in my studio before coming to the museum to finalize the groupings. This sorting yielded more book clusters than any other I've done to date, but it was an agonizing last day, and it felt impossible to stop when there was always one more book that begged for inclusion. For the first time, I worked with the book covers up, in part because the titles didn't always appear on the spines, but also because the covers were rich with information and so beautiful that I couldn't imagine displaying them otherwise.
Nina Katchadourian's solo exhibition Once Upon a Time in Delaware/In Quest of the Perfect Book opens at the Delaware Art Museum on June 23rd and continues through September 16, 2012.