I just found out three exciting pieces of Humument news!
— News about what now?
A Humument. A Humument is a book by artist Tom Phillips Kinda. Maybe it's three books. Or not a book. It's a something.
...Let me start over.
Once upon a time, there was a novel by one W. H. Mallock (1849-1923) called A Human Document (1892). It came out, was presumably read by someone at some point, and then was completely forgotten, until an artist named Tom Phillips (b. 1937) found it at an old store when he was looking for a book to alter, to treat, to change, as part of an artistic project. He bought it and began to alter its pages. He crossed out, painted over and drew on each page — leaving, however, some words to make up a new (hidden, revealed) story running through the art. The first edition — which was unnumbered, but which given subsequent events should perhaps be considered edition zero —came out, from a small press, in 1970. A edition came out from a larger publisher, Thames & Hudson, in 1980. (It is considered, I believe, the "first" edition, although so far as I know it isn't formally numbered.)
But. Phillips continued to work on it.
He'd altered the entire book into a single, amazing artwork. But he kept altering pages — replacing old ones with new versions. And then he'd publish a new edition with the new pages substituting for the old versions. (Thus each edition is slightly different.) The second edition (so-called, actually third) came out in 1986; the third in 1998; the fourth in 2004. I own the fourth, having read it (Browsed it? Looked at it? What does one do with A Humument, anyway?) from the library. Apparently Mr. Phillips's ambition is to replace every page from his original 1970 edition. With a new version.
I understand that. The various pages from the original edition is simply not as rich, not as wonderful, as the pages from the later editions. Here, see for yourself: here is the third page from the original (1970) edition, paired with the current (AFAIK) page three:
You see what I mean.
On the other hand, sometimes he replaces a page I really like. For instance, I really like both versions of p. 15:
And of p. 20:
So the process of replacement is a loss, too. At least sometimes.
Not all of the replaced pages are originaly from the 1970 edition; some pages he has replaced more than once. So far as I can tell (I don't have access to all the editions) these are often great pages replacing equally great pages (or nearly so). (I should say at this point that not all of Phillips' treatment of this book is even part of the Humument project. He's done altered pages of Mallock's novel separately, as part of other projects, e.g. as part of an illustrated version of Dante he did.) What's really wanted is A Complete Humument, with all the versions of all the pages included. Perhaps someday someone will publish one.
In the meantime, it's a marvelous book, highly, highly recommended.
Which leads me to the first of the three pieces of exciting Humument news.
1. The Fifth Edition of A Humument Has Been Published
Two years ago (why does no one tell me these things?) Phillips published his Fifth Edition (not counting, as always, the original, small-press, Zeroith edition. So you can go buy it & read it. It's great.
But what if you don't want that book? That leads us to...
2. A Humument has an Ap (= an Ebook version)
Yes, there is an iPad — and iPhone — version of A Humument. It seems to be based largely on the Fifth Edition (op. cit.), but also has brand-new, never-before-seen pages. — Actually, I haven't checked out the iPhone version, but given Phillips's record, I have no confidence that the art in the two Aps are at all identical.
I just downloaded the iPad version.
It has one feature — an "not-too-serious oracle", which displays two paired random pages (a feature which Phillips seems very taken with) — not in the book, although I suppose you could flip through the book and pick two pages. Or roll a 367-sided die, twice. Or something,
It also has one flaw: it doesn't seem to remember your place if you close & reopen the ap — there's no bookmark function. (It does, fortunately, have a "go to" function, albeit not one with the easiest to use UI.) Or maybe I've just missed it so far.
But mostly it's the latest version of A Humument, with all the astonishing brilliance that implies, as an ebook. (And about 1/3 - 1/4 of the price of the paperback.) So go ahead and get that, too.
Still, it would be nice to see various versions of a single page, wouldn't it?
Which leads us to...
3. A Humument had an art show, and it's now online.
Through most of 2013 — and I really rue that I only found this out in 2014 (why does no one tell me these things?) — there was a show of A Humument up at the Mass MoCA museum in North Andover, Massachusetts. The show displayed two versions of each page (it doesn't seem they ever included more than two, which is a pity). They also presented the unaltered version of Mallock's book along with them.
Yeah, it's over. It sucks. But: they now have an online gallery of it.
With three versions of each page: Mallock's unaltered, and two by Phillips. (A few of the latter versions — maybe 1/10? — are missing, perhaps to encourage you to buy the book and/or ap, which you should do anyway.) But it's A Humument. Twice. Online.
Go see it. It's one of the great books — great art projects — great nested collection of various related....
Aw hell. Who knows what it is. But whatever it is, it's one of the great ones of our time.
Here are some Humument-related links from my bookmarks folder.
- The introduction to the fifth edition, from the main Humument page.
- A set of essays on A Humument, from ibid.
- You got the part where two complete versions of A Humument are online, right?
- Review from the Boston Globe.
- Review from the London Review of Books.
- LRB's interview with Tom Phillips.
- Review from The Kenyon Review.
- Kenyon Review's interview with Tom Phillips.