Admiring the ABCs of Alphabet Books

Across the gallery from Do Re Mi is the exhibition A B C, which presents alphabet and writing books from the library’s rare book collection. The exhibition will be up until Dec. 21.

The books range in date from 1763 (although they include a facsimile of a manuscript from the 15th century) to 2012. They include playful books for children, as well as books crafted as works of art.

Many of the books are gifts from former Bowdoin College trustee and art scholar, David Becker ’70, or come from the pop-up collection that Harold M. Goralnick bequeathed to Bowdoin in 2008.

Alphabet books and writing books emerged during the late Middle Ages to advance literacy skills. Alphabet books helped children learn to read while writing books focused on the shape and proper technique for forming letters. Together, these two genres “show how utilitarian books can be, and can become, objects of beauty, to be admired as much as to be read,” Richard Lindemann writes in the exhibition’s introduction. Lindemann is the director of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin.

The exhibition starts off with the book Alphabetum Romanum, which shows how Renaissance scholar Felice Feliciano drew letters as they appeared in classical antiquity. “Such 15th-century studies, centering on geometric and circular proportions, formed the basis for all the rules and aesthetic principals that have been applied to typeface design and lettering to this day,” Lindemann explains.

The exhibition moves forward in time, to  2007, with Abracadabra. Created by Werner Pfeiffer, the book is part sculpture, part magic trick. It presents a series of pages based on the letters in the word abracadabra, and as the book is manipulated, the words appear and disappear, like cards being manipulated by a deft magician.

Close to Pfeiffer’s book in the display case is the artist Paul Noble’s massive, intricate drawing of a bombed-out city, reproduced in the small book, Nobson Central, published in 2000. Looking closely at the pages, it’s possible to see that each of the wrecked buildings corresponds to an abstract and very stylized letter of the alphabet.

Further along in the exhibition, a tiny book made in 1991 by Maryline Poole Adams,  Jack-in-the-box: An Alphabet, plays on popular Jack references.

ABZ Bees provides more examples of miniature-sized books. ABZ Bees, created in 2002 by Mary Howe, is a meticulous collection of small books designed to mimic the type of box filled with bees that apiarists might receive in the mail. Three miniature books fit into three slots, including a pop-up book, an alphabet book and a flip book.

All together, the exhibition includes 38 books. Twenty-six of the books have been opened to the pages that correspond to each letter in the alphabet, allowing visitors to get a sense of the structure and architecture of the books, from a to z.

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