The Invisible Book, by Elisabeth Tonnard.

The Invisible Book, by Elisabeth Tonnard.

A while ago I bought an invisible book. Or at least I think I did. It’s hard to tell. I certainly got a confirmation email from its author and creator, the artist Elisabeth Tonnard, advising me that it had been sent and acknowledging my payment of €0. This seems like a shrewd investment: my book is one of a limited edition of 100 (neither signed nor numbered) and, as Tonnard’s website says, it is ‘a product without a single fault, available at the lowest price possible’. To make the transaction a little more concrete I also ordered the set of (visible) postcards accompanying the work. Highlights in the History of ‘The Invisible Book’ includes pictures of the book’s early underwater testing in the Galapagos Islands, its acclaimed 1962 exhibition at the New York Public Library, and the undisclosed facility where the original manuscript has been kept since the 1870s, although ‘some say it is no longer there’.

Digital technology has allowed a migration of text away from the physical page, onto screens and into the less tangible realms of cyberspace and digital storage. (Where exactly are the words you are reading now?) But this separation of writing and paper has not ushered in the End of the Book, as once predicted. In the age of its supposed technological obsolescence, the book has become something rich and strange, emerging in all its papery singularity. A recent reissue of the 19th-century pulp novel Revelations of a Lady Detective reproduces not only the original paperback cover, but its worn and creased edges. A facsimile of the 1893 cover of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes appears on greeting cards and merchandise, complete with water damage and mould. The minutiae of paper manufacture, typefaces, bindings and library shelving were once of interest only in the musty corners of book history; there is now a wealth of academic research, conferences and publications on ‘the material text’.

In No Medium, Craig Dworkin goes still further in shifting the page from background to foreground, identifying a canon of non-texts, works composed only of blank space: the empty fictional journal Nudisme, brandished in the opening scenes of Cocteau’s Orphée; the unused ream of typing paper ‘published’ by Aram Saroyan in 1968, and the de Kooning drawing painstakingly erased by Robert Rauschenberg. Paper here is not a mere support, medium or conduit, but a distinct object with qualities, substance and meaning in its own right. There are other artists and writers who explore these meanings, practising a perverse kind of writing, or perhaps unwriting, in which the creative act involves not inscription but erasure, blankness and redaction. Dworkin’s sometime collaborator, Nick Thurston, has produced an edition of Maurice Blanchot’s Space of Literature, in which Blanchot’s words have been entirely excised, and the text consists only of Thurston’s marginal notes.

The book is certainly not dead, but it is having something of an identity crisis. If it conventionally comprised both written word and physical page, what happens when we separate the two? Precisely what – and where – is a book? Does its essence lie in its content or its form? Like the Cheshire Cat, the book’s vanishing acts and reappearances are unpredictable and partial. It can exist as text without physical pages, or as pages with no text. Just how far we can extend this series of subtractions is a question posed by Tonnard’s invisible book. She seems to push them to their logical – and yet deeply illogical – conclusion. Her book has neither text nor pages. I can’t read it or put it on the shelf. But perhaps it isn’t such an anomaly: I often buy books I don’t read, and some of them exist only in the non-space of my computer hard drive. Tonnard’s book isn’t non-existent or imaginary. Just invisible.