Creative minds have traditionally had an uneasy relationship with handbooks, guidebooks, and other instruction manuals. While their pages might convey desirable information, they are also prescriptive pedagogical tools that can constrain the free flow of ideas. And yet, guidebooks have inspired a range of innovative responses. The contemporary artists’ books offered here examine archetypal forms of instruction, reconsidering, resisting, satirizing, and yes, even venerating instructional forms through a range of new approaches to traditional formats.

“Plans des fermes et domaines appartenans à Mme. Lavoisier dans le canton de Villers-Cotterets”

This late-eighteenth-century manuscript inventory was created for Marie-Anne Pierrette (Paulze) Lavoisier by Charles Choisy. The exquisitely-rendered watercolors served to legally assert Mme. Lavoisier’s claims to land in northern France during the French Revolution. Her husband, Antoine Lavoisier, the celebrated French chemist, fell victim to the Reign of Terror, and was executed in May 1794 in Paris. Mme. Lavoisier, an artist and chemist, wisely retained evidence of her own legal rights, which proved important documents in the wake of her husband’s death.

Interminable Gabberjabbs: Voltaire the Haemadeh

Walter Hamady, a trailblazer in the artists’ book world, embarked on his series of “Interminable Gabberjabbs” with this volume in 1973. His approach to book construction brings a collage sensibility to letterpress printing by including a range of found paper types and sizes and embracing a sense of colliding visual references. Always a satirist, Hamady attacks received wisdom and scholarly authority by breaking rules. Here, in what should be the table of contents, he challenges typographic standards and layouts, simply listing elements of his book in their expected order without reference to their content or placement, regardless of their actual presence.

“Map of San Serriffe,” from The Booksellers of San Serriffe

This map, originally published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1977, inspired Henry Morris to create a series of books that explore life on the fictional island nation of San Serriffe. Specifically, Morris (who was the owner and chief printer at the Bird & Bull Press) imagined aspects of the book trade, such as this tongue-in-cheek publication, which pokes fun at the rarefied world of fine press bookselling. With its many puns on typographicreferences such as the name, which plays on Sans Serif fonts,Upper and Lower Case islands, Gill Sands (a play on the font, Gill Sans), and its capital city, Bodoni (also the name of a popular font), the map offers plenty of amusement for book lovers.


Laura Davidson’s artistic interests often turn to travel. In this case, she pays tribute to her father’s wanderlust, offering a portrait of his life as a traveler, from his time as a young soldier sketching in the Panama Canal, to maps he has created himself, and the stars that have guided his journeys.


Laura Davidson’s twenty-first-century book creates a canvas of a vintage 1893 Baedeker guidebook to Italy, which she has reproduced on paper dyed with Italian Lavazza espresso. Davidson has added her own linoleum cut prints of touristic scenes, modernizing Baedeker, but also recognizing it as a domineering influence for turn-of-the-century Western tourists.

An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy: Pt. 2, Red Line Tracing Book

The artist Xu Bing, currently an Andrew Dickson White professor-at-large, developed square word calligraphy as a form of writing that merged Chinese calligraphy and English letterforms. From a distance, it appears to be a form of Chinese brush-written calligraphy, but is actually Roman characters in English, arranged into square shapes. Readers of English can decode it; readers of Chinese cannot. This introductory manual explains the system of writing, from ink preparation to proper posture and brushstroke movements; the tracing book allows students to learn by writing over printed characters in a prescribed order.

The Young Clerks Assistant, or, Penmanship Made Easy Instructive and Entertaining: Being a Compleat Pocket-Copy-Book, Curiously Engrav'd for the Practice of Youth in the Art of Writing

This highly influential penmanship manual taught young English students of writing, who were encouraged to use its blank pages to practice. The author, a renowned writing master and prolific author of copybooks, provided a range of text styles to learners of both sexes. Bickham urged the “young ladies of Great Britain,” to “let the Fingers, whose unrivall’d Skill / Exalts the Needle, grace the Noble Quill.”

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