Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2022

Reading Art, Art for Book Lovers, by David Trigg

Once upon a time there was a very foolish man who was Premier of my state of Victoria.  Like his other acts of folly, his proposal to shut down bricks-and-mortar libraries and replace them with a digital ordering system gave no thought to the heartless consequences of his preoccupation with money.  I thought of him when I was browsing in Bayside library this week and stumbled on Reading Art, Art for Book Lovers, by David Trigg.  I would never have known that I wanted this book until I saw it, for its unpretentious cover gives no clue to the treasures within.

The proposal was fiercely resisted by booklovers everywhere.  And to our relief, in stark contrast to the (even more fiercely resisted) closure of hospitals and schools and even railway lines, the proposal died. Ironically, it was a different premier, one whose government acknowledges (and funds) public libraries as essential infrastructure, who  compromised public access to libraries during the pandemic.  For long periods of lockdown we could order books online and pick them up using click-and-collect, but we could not go inside the library.  We could not browse the stacks, inspect the New Books Shelves, or flop down in a chair to read a page or two before making the all important decision to borrow. We could not hear the gentle murmur of parents reading to their children, and we never saw the delighted faces at Tiny Tots Story Time.  There was no opportunity for the old or lonely to have what might be their only conversation for the day, at the circulation desk.

And we could not stumble on a book that we didn’t know we wanted.

Reading Art, Art for Book Lovers begins with a preface which celebrates a revolutionary yet everyday object: the book — and its reader. Readers, it tells us, were represented in art long before books as we now know them.  And while much of art shows us how life has changed, artworks representing books show us moments of shared humanity that transcend culture and time. 

The artworks are arranged not chronologically or by medium but by these connections.  We see them curated by an idea or concept, such as the burning or censorship of books. So there is Marta Minujin’s installation ‘Parthenon of Books‘ sited in the very place where the Nazis burned books in 1933, along with Banned Book 3 by Liu Ye which references the Cultural Revolution with a girl reading, her face hidden, ready to spring away from a forbidden book.

Those of us who love books and reading as a stimulus for endless curiosity will find plenty of images which celebrate the pivotal role of books in disseminating knowledge and ideas. Books were crucial to the spread of Christianity and to the dissemination of information which brought us the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.  There is Laurent’s portrait of ‘Gutenberg, Inventor of the Printing Press’ and ‘Dewattines the Bookbinder’ by Debaene Alphonse-Jules, and there are author portraits such as Émile Zola and a still life titled ‘The Writer’s Table: a Precarious Moment’.  There are many portraits of women reading, ranging from those exhorting women to read ‘improving books’ such as Bibles and Psalters, to those reading scandalous novels and erotica.

But there are also images of books as collectibles that remain unread.  Trigg writes about one of the most famous in his fascinating introduction. It’s a painting called ‘The Librarian’ by Arcimboldo (1527-93) and I have on my shelves a small resin sculpture version which I bought in Amsterdam.  But I didn’t know when I bought it that it’s a satirical portrait of the vain and pompous pseudo-scholar Wolfgang Lazius, depicting him as a pile of expensive books — unread, because they are horizontal which, Trigg tells us, is how books were stored in those days. The only open book is the one above his line of sight, on his head.

Moving from the 16th century to our own time, Trigg also tells us about a series of installations by Alicia Martin that depict cascades of books bursting through walls, cautionary lessons for a culture that has become saturated with information.  But the creepiest image on this theme is a photo titled ‘Amazon’ which shocked me even more when I read that:

Nothing here is organised alphabetically, or even by product type, rather, the items are placed according to a computer algorithm based on consumer spending patterns.  (p.263)

If you’ve ever laughed sardonically at book recommendations, you know just how inane they are… and yet clearly this business model works or *sigh* Amazon would not still be with us.

This is a well-curated collection that is food for thought in many ways.

David Trigg is a writer, critic and art historian based in Britain.

AT $45AUD, this is not an expensive book, considering the quality of the paper and the reproductions of almost 300 images.  But the font for the Preface and Introduction is painfully small, and TBH, I would have liked a somewhat larger book, allowing for more readable print and bigger images as well.

Author: David Trigg
Title: Reading Art, Art for Book Lovers
Publisher: Phaidon Press, UK, 2018
ISBN: 9780714876276, hbk., 351 pages including the Index and Picture Credits
Source: Bayside Library




  1. A wonderful tribute to the merits and necessity of the community library. Long may they continue to exist.


  2. This sounds a real gem Lisa. Our libraries are always threatened with closure too but they seem to be thriving whenever I go in. They are community hubs.


    • One of the points that Trigg makes is that books are still here despite the predictions about eBooks, so as long as there are still enough people wanting them and willing to demand them rather than acquiesce, libraries that adapt will survive. I can’t speak for all of them, but ours are community hubs too., Secondary school students gather to do homework together (and they are actually doing it, not making a racket) and people without internet access use the computers, and a few old gents come in each day to read the paper and so on. And there are always activities being organised… I’ve been to all sorts of things including a gardening and a cooking session as well as author talks. Long live libraries!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely post, Lisa, and the book sounds excellent. I so agree that the browsing is so important – how many books have we stumbled across in libraries and bookshops that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise!!!


    • The other thing I owe libraries is the habit of reading itself. I’ve posted before about how my father walked us to the library every Saturday and we came back with as many books as we were allowed to borrow. That established a lifelong habit of reading, and I reckon every parent who wants to give their kids a good start at school could do the same. And if they did, well, it’s community usage that keeps the bean-counters away from libraries…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We almost lost our village library a few years ago, the politicians essentially giving an ultimatum that unless the community took it over, it would close. It’s now run by volunteers but since they have to rely on fundraising to keep the lights on I wouldn’t bank on it being here in 5 years time.

    I’ve so missed the ability to browse both in bookshops and libraries. Buying online even if its from a source that does pay its fair wack of taxes, just ain’t the same. Its books like this and the lesser known authors who miss out – browsing it too hard to do online so people end up buying what they’ve already heard of/ or authors they’ve read before. So gems like this one never get a look in


    • There are small towns here that are like that too. It makes it hard for booklovers, and as you say, having to search for something rather than just discover it by chance is just not the same. But it’s also an equity issue: if you live somewhere with either a small or inadequate library, and you’re a keen reader, then you end up having to buy the books you want, and of course not everyone can afford that.
      One of my friends was a teacher in a very small town, and all the secondary school kids (who went to school, miles away, by bus) were round at her house all the time using her reference books such as atlases and encyclopedias. This was before the internet, but in rural places, the internet isn’t always available anyway.


  5. Phaidon has some lovely books and even the cover of this one is gorgeous.
    But I know I would be right there with you about the small print. Sigh!


    • Yes, it was a problem. When my eyes got tired I considered jettisoning the intro, but was always brought back to it by what it had to say. Maybe I need to buy one of those magnifier thingies for books like this…


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