Sorted Books project

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 form 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. At present, the Sorted Books project comprises more than 130 book clusters.

Order the Sorted Books publication from Chronicle Books

The series Composition from the Sorted Books project
Pictured above: Relax

C-prints, each 12.5 x 19 inches, 1993

Composition, the first of the book sorting projects, took place in a private home in Half Moon Bay, California. The couple living there were both real estate agents in their forties and had been married for about five years—a second marriage for both of them. They had moved into the house with two discrete book collections that they merged, filling about twenty tall bookcases that occupied the entire middle section of the house. There was a great deal of literature, self-help, and motivational writing in their collection. There were also a number of instances where I discovered two copies of the same book, a telling coincidence that I tried to make use of whenever possible.

See the complete series from Composition

The series Reference from the Sorted Books project
Pictured above: Dyslexia
C-prints, each 12.5 x 19 inches, 1996

Reference took place in a now-defunct New York gallery called Spot in 1996. The gallery director, who also lived in the back of the space, was a photographer and former eye surgeon. His book collection reflected his interest in art history, theory, photography and criticism, but there were also many medical reference books left over from his past profession. In effect, there were two kinds of books on seeing: the books dealing with vision in the context of art history and criticism, and the books dealing with vision in its most mechancial and literal sense.

See the complete series from Reference

The series Special Collections Revisited from the Sorted Books project
Pictured above: What is Art?

C-prints, each 12.5 x 19 inches, 1996/2008

Special Collections Revisited was originally done at the Athenaeum Arts and Music Library in La Jolla, California in 1996, and expanded when I had a chance to visit the library again in 2008. The library is housed in a beautiful Mission-style building in an upscale shopping district. While I was working there, I met many charming retirees who frequented the library, some coming to browse and others working as volunteers. The atmosphere of the library was quiet, romantic, and contemplative, and the library's collection focused largely on famous artists and musicians immortalized as classics of the western cultural past. There was also an unusually large children's book section. When the book clusters were complete, they were exhibited on shelves (with the books stacked horizontally for the first time, since I felt they were easier to read that way) and as see-saw sculptures in the front reading room of the library.

See the complete series from Special Collections Revisited

The series Akron Stacks from the Sorted Books project
Pictured above: Primitive Art

C-prints, each 12.5 x 19 inches, 2001

The Akron Art Museum in Ohio commissioned me to do a book sorting using the holdings of the museum's research library. Their book collection had extensive materials and catalogs from various contemporary art exhibtions, as well as many large-format, hardback monographs. The books from the library did not circulate to the general public, and the library itself was so separate from the main exhibition areas that visitors had no idea there was a library there at all. There was a special section on the business and fundraising side of museum administration, books that felt particularly important to use since these activities are often behind the scenes of the exhibitions. When the sorting project was complete, the book clusters were brought to the gift shop located behind the front desk and integrated into the displays.

See the complete series from Akron Stacks

The series Sorting Shark from the Sorted Books project
Pictured above: A Day at the Beach

C-prints, each 12.5 x 19 inches, 2001

Shark was a journal of art and poetics based in New York. The two editors, a poet and a painter, published the journal from a home office lined wall-to-wall with books, and cookbooks shared space with books on art history and literary theory. Following an invitation from the editors, a book sorting was done as a project for Shark. The most intriguing part of the library was the extensive collection of contemporary poetry, where many books had particularly unusual titles. Grammatically, many of these titles were quite unorthodox, consisting, for example, of isolated adverbs or sentence fragments.

See the complete series from Sorting Shark

The series BookPace from the Sorted Books project
Pictured above: Kinds of Love

C-prints, each 12.5 x 19 inches, 2002

The home of of art patron Linda Pace, founder of the San Antonio art center ArtPace, showcased her extensive collection of contemporary art. There were also numerous books in the house, in both the public and private spaces (including more books, organized on large shelves, than I've ever seen before in a bathroom). Many of the books in the public areas were art catalogs and publications related to the artists in her collection, whereas the books in the private quarters were very personal in nature, dealing with dreams, grieving, and myth, to name a few examples. Combining books from different parts of the house—mixing the public with the private—became the focus of this sorting. When complete, the book clusters were installed upstairs in a private room that had a small library.

See the complete series from BookPace

The series Sorting Strindberg from the Sorted Books project
Pictured above: Sveriges Adelskalender

C-prints, each 12.5 x 19 inches, 2004

While on a residency in Stockholm in 2004, the Strindberg Museum generously gave me permission to work with August Strindberg's books. Strindberg lived in a 4th-floor apartment, and a room on the 6th floor housed his research library with the majority of his books. Because many of Strindberg's books were extremely fragile, I spent three days taking digital pictures and writing down book titles on notecards. Then I worked at home, shuffling around the hundreds of notecards to create the clusters and then crosschecking against the digital pictures to make sure the physical properties of the books would work in these combinations. Although I grew up speaking Swedish, this was the first time I sorted books in a language other than English. Working posthumously with a famous writer raised new questions: was the goal to write in Strindberg's voice, to somehow channel him through his books? Was I obligated to express his opinions, or was there space for my own? Did the clusters need to reflect topics from his era, or mine? The breadth of Strindberg's interests was immense. If nothing else, I wanted my book clusters to do justice to Strindberg's omnivorous intellectual appetite, and I felt happiest when this diversity could be reflected within just a single photograph.

See the complete series from Sorting Strindberg

The series Once Upon a Time in Delaware/In Search of the Perfect Book from the Sorted Books project
Pictured above: Indian History for Young Folks

C-prints, 12.5" x 15", 12.5" x 19", and 12.5" x 26", 2012

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 2,000 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 dustjackets 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 19th-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 their online database of the book covers. I printed out about 700 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, 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 otherwise.

See the complete series from Once Upon a Time in Delaware/In Search of the Perfect Book

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