A secret in every book … but no text required

By Jennifer Schuessler / New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Mindell Dubansky’s romance with fake books began nearly two decades ago at a Manhattan flea market, where she picked up a small volume carved from a piece of coal and bearing the name of a young man who had died in a mining accident in 1897.

“An electric charge of grief went through my entire body,” Dubansky, the longtime preservation librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recalled.

A light bulb also went off in her head. Sensing an unexplored territory, Dubansky set out to map the contours of the world of fake books, eventually amassing about 600 made from stone, wax, straw, wood, soap, plastic, glass and other materials. She even coined a term for them: “blooks,” short for “book-look.”

Some 200 items from her collection went on display Thursday at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, a temple to books, where they will remain through March 12. The exhibition, “Blooks: The Art of Books That Aren’t,” appears to be the first of its kind in the United States.

Most exhibitions at the Grolier, whose grand library holds more than 100,000 volumes with real pages and sometimes spectacular fine bindings, don’t include items like Secret Sam’s Spy Dictionary, a 1960s toy that lets users photograph enemies with a camera hidden inside a fake tome that also shoots plastic bullets out of its spine.

To Dubanksy, the larger goal of the show is to have fake books accepted as a real part of biblio-history.

“I see blooks as a parallel to book history, but I’ve had trouble getting people to take them seriously because of the association with kitsch,” she said.

She finds it easy to look for deeper meaning. “People have a real love of the book as an object,” she said. “But what is that connection about? Why do we feel a need to live with books, to have them around? I figured that if I could eliminate the text and collect objects made to mimic the form of books, I could figure that out a little better.”

While it can be hard to establish a clear history of blooks, they may have existed as long as the codex itself. There were elaborate medieval reliquaries shaped like books, as well as items like a book-shaped beer keg Dubansky saw described in an old text.

From the beginning, “it was humble objects and fine objects mixed together,” she said.

The Grolier show ranges chronologically from an 18th-century wooden volume that opens up into an altar (apparently used by Roman Catholics, Dubansky said) to a purple plastic children’s toy from the mid-1990s called a Polly Pocket. The objects in categories — religion, commemoration, photography, food, toys, grooming and so on — form what Dubansky calls a tentative taxonomy of blooks.

It’s hard not to be charmed by the emotional intensity, inventiveness and sometimes sheer whimsy of the items in the chockablock display cases. In one, book-shaped boxes for office supplies sit near a delicate straw-work sewing kit, made by a French prisoner during the Napoleonic Wars. A display of mini-blooks includes a pocket clothes brush tucked inside a volume by “Y.B. Untidy.” A case dedicated to food includes book-shaped containers and promotional displays for biscuits, coffee and sardines. (Sardines?)

Some blooks are less persuasive than others. There is, for example, a 1950s intruder alarm called the Informer, which was activated by a sensor behind two rather noticeable holes cut in the spine. “It’s supposed to fake you out,” Dubansky said. “The person who made that really did not get books.”

The show includes blooks from multivolume sets, like an album of early 19th-century Grand Tour souvenir medallions and a tastefully bound women’s vanity set labeled, a bit perplexingly, Vol. XVII.

The 20th-century items tend to be mass-produced objects, like a beautifully bound 1950s Crosley book radio (turned on by opening the cover slightly) with “Fantasy” gold-stamped on the spine.

“It took me years just to make this collection,” she said. “In their time they were very popular, but they were disposable.”

We live in a moment in which the book itself seems to be dematerializing, thanks to e-book readers (which some people, it must be said, protect with cases mimicking leather-bound volumes). There is a hint of violence, even biblioclasm, in the show. One item on display — a midcentury magician’s prop known as a “hot book” — includes a kind of mini-flame thrower hidden behind an innocuous-looking cover reading “Holy Bible.”

But don’t get Dubansky started on the current vogue for dead-tree volumes that have been sliced, sawed, shredded, blowtorched and otherwise mutilated on their way to becoming new works of art.

“I hate this wholesale destruction of books that’s going on, this altered-books craze,” Dubansky said. “I’ve seen so many beautiful books that have been damaged on Etsy. They could just make blooks instead!”

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