Cain’s Jawbone, one of the more demanding puzzles of the 20th century, was recently solved for the third time. Devised by the inventor of the cryptic crossword, Edward Powys Mathers (aka Torquemada), it was first published in 1934. Perhaps inevitably, it has taken another crossword buff to crack it in 2020: John Finnemore sets puzzles for the Times under the moniker Emu (when he isn’t appearing in his own Radio 4 comedy series). Cain’s Jawbone isn’t a crossword, however, even if it has some of the same cryptic, sideways logic. It’s a whodunnit mystery novel with a structural twist, in that its 100 pages appear out of sequence, making the plot unintelligible and obscuring the identities of the murderers and their victims. The task is to find the correct page order, working out in the process who dun what to whom.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump tweeted a series of photographs with the caption: ‘Kayleigh McEnany presenting Lesley Stahl with some of the many things we’ve done for Healthcare.’ The pictures showed his press secretary handing some papers and a hefty volume to the 60 Minutes reporter, just before an interview which the president cut short acrimoniously. As many Twitter users were quick to point out, one of the images showed Stahl opening the book and peering inside at an apparently blank page. Had the book been mocked up for the purposes of the interview, embodying not only the lack of an actual health policy, but also the fakery and pretence at the heart of the administration? Others responded that the absence of text proved nothing, since it could have been a flyleaf or title page: ‘Haven’t you ever read a book?’
The strangest parcel I’ve received in the post recently is a plain black box about the size of a paperback. It doesn’t contain a book, though, or at least not at first sight. Instead there is another, smaller box labelled ‘Milton’, which opens to reveal a row of delicate, inch-tall glass vessels, each with around ten white pills in it.
In the late 19th century, as public libraries grew, so did anxieties about their threat to public health. Scarlet fever, smallpox and tuberculosis were thought to be spread through germ-ridden books, and various methods of disinfection were used, including steam, formaldehyde solution and heated carbolic crystals. (The practice was revived this year, in less elaborate form, as libraries began disinfecting books with antibacterial wipes.) Demands that libraries should be closed were resisted, but the 1907 Public Health Amendment Act threatened heavy fines for anyone infected with disease who borrowed books.
For twenty years, Alejandro Cesarco has been making fake book indexes: alphabetical lists that look authentic enough, down to their page numbers and layout, but are actually free-floating artefacts. For the first time, the whole series of seven indexes is on show, at the Witte de With gallery in Rotterdam (until 5 January). Each refers to a different ‘imaginary book’. They are not endmatter but ends in themselves.
d.p. houston’s poetry collection Boîte de Vers is completely unreadable, but not in the sense that it’s bad. It could well be, but I have no idea because it comes in a sealed box.
Behind the handsome 18th-century façade of The Hague’s Museum Meermanno, ‘the House of the Book’, pages are turning. Everywhere you look they are turning over, but also turning into other things: screens, data, moving image, sound, even skin. The Art of Reading: From William Kentridge to Wikipedia is not so much an exhibition of contemporary book artists as an attempt to use their work to ask what reading is. The question has increasingly exercised theorists and scholars as the printed book loses its dominance, but here the overfamiliar act is scrutinised through the lens of art.
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’.
‘I hate books. Can't read them. They send me to sleep,' says the man responsible for annihilating tens of thousands of books a year. Let’s call him B. Secrecy is at a premium in his trade and we are granted an interview only after protracted negotiation, a series of deferrals and cancellations, and lots of provisos. Sat in a bare, bleak office somewhere in the Midlands, with the constant background din of next door's shredding machines, he lets us know we're fortunate to get a glimpse of the world of 'destruction work'.