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To have and to hold: the physical book — more than a quaint tradition

An exhibition by Penny Parry – Review by Frances Hunter

The exhibition To Have and to Hold encourages us to re-experience the physical book as a container of much more than just information. Increasingly today, we read text on the smooth, backlit surface of a handheld device — an object that can hold a world of information in virtual memory. Penny Parry claims we stand to lose part of our nature by trading an object with which we have a material connection — the book – for its virtual and disposable digital version.

The centrepiece of her exhibition is an impossible-to-ignore giant book, Who is Alice Really? Not just the size of a large family bible but a 5-foot high, traditional hardbound book on a large wooden stand with the Moab Entrada heavy rag-paper pages needing to be turned with both hands. Author “aka Alice” (since early childhood Alice in Wonderland has been a fascination for Parry) and editor/designer/maker Penny Parry have collaborated in word and image to create an experience designed to stimulate curiosity, encourage “slow” thinking and thoughtful touch while turning the heavy pages, feeling the suede-covered cover, and absorbing the photographic images with the commentaries or “chapters” set in a traditional 96 pt. Century Schoolbook typeface.

The book dominates the Craft House gallery. Its striking presence jumpstarts visitors’ curiosity, but it is just one part of Parry’s installation. In a series of displays, Parry and “aka Alice” introduce us, as if in conversation, to all the aspects of “book” that one can imagine. For example, there is a broadsheet, “Manifesto on the Value of Inconvenience;” a pile of Alice in Wonderland editions next to a small rocking chair; a group of vials including one containing bookish smells, and her father’s dictionaries, marked up with years of comments in the margins. As Parry says “Physical books take on many meanings and markings.”

Parry raises the question, “What is a book?” by showing the transformation of a single sheet of paper cut and folded into a pamphlet with the caption “One page: must I change to be accepted? I know I am only one page but folded up I look like a book don’t I? No need to get personal about my lack of spine…I can hold my own.” She also compares a physical bookmark’s link to memory and meaning with the ubiquitous web browser bookmark.

The exhibition successfully questions how we are absorbing text, image and ideas, i.e., fleetingly and subject to being digitally erased, or in the physical form of books. Parry reinforces the importance of the book’s role in providing a physical entry point for our curiosity and as a source of stimulation for all our senses in a way that the digital world never will.