The Invisible Book

It has a title. It has a place of publication. A publication date. It has a print run. And a price. So far so good. This book by Dutch artist Elisabeth Tonnard doesn’t sound particularly odd. So why have we included it in the remarkable objects series? Because you can’t actually see it. This makes The Invisible Book a striking highlight in the collection of artists’ books that the KB stores.  

About 'The Invisible Book'

The Invisible Book, published in Leerdam in June 2012, was created by Dutch artist Elisabeth Tonnard. She published a grand total of 100 copies, which went on sale for € 0 each. We don’t know the dimensions, or how many pages it has. It doesn’t have a title page, a cover, a colophon or a table of contents. You can’t see it or touch it. But: it does exist. Otherwise we wouldn’t have included it in our catalogue.

The invisible book as an idea

The Invisible Book exists as a concept, an idea. And as a paratext, which is a text with information about a book, but which isn’t part of its contents. Publicity for the book, for example, or the website that Tonnard created about this particular work. Writing about The Invisible Book, critic Annette Gilbert wrote that it could make all its readers’ wishes come true, because it could contain anything that readers want it to. It shows similarities to the ideas of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). At the end of the 19th century, he searched for a book that would comprise all other books. Or: imagination. You can read whatever you want into this book. This somehow makes the fact that it’s invisible less important.

Artists' books

The Invisible Book is an example of an artists’ book, books that are made by one or more artists. Books without words or pictures are a new form within this genre. Books with blank pages have been appearing since the 1960s. The book Wit by Herman de Vries (1962) is a good example. But at least that book is tangible. Tonnard’s book isn’t, which makes it unique. 

Why would you make an invisible book?

Why would anyone make a book that no-one else can see? First of all, it’s a way of making a book without a single mistake. A perfect book, the ideal book. This is what a lot of book makers strive for. Many artists’ books are deemed to be perfect. But perfection is not an absolute. 

Secondly, to make the book as cheap as possible. The lack of production costs keeps the price down. N.B.: The €0 price does not take account of the time that Tonnard spent on the concept and on creating the website describing her book. Or the postage and packaging.

Tonnard has said that her book was a response to falling book sales in combination with higher expectations on the part of readers. In short: the wish to have their cake and eat it too. The Invisible Book can be seen as an act of protest, in that respect.

More artists' books by Tonnard

All of Tonnard’s work was produced in book form, mainly photo books. She often bases her work on existing pictures or texts, such as her adaptation of patriotic speeches given by the former American president George W. Bush, which she turned into poems. And she made A History of Dogma. The only words in this book are in the cover title and colophon. The contents comprise blue lines and numbers, which are the lines drawn by a reader to underline sentences in a German book that Tonnard had found: Dogmengeschichte, written in 1951. We can see that the reader attached importance to certain passages, but we have no idea why. 

Tonnard is fascinated by mysteries like this. What are we not seeing when we look at something? What eludes us when we find something out? What do we lose when we record or document something? Artists’ books – whether made by Elisabeth Tonnard or someone else – force us to look at things from a different perspective.

How can you access 'The Invisible Book'?

The KB doesn’t have the first edition of The Invisible Book. The entire print run was sold out immediately when one buyer bought every single copy. We have a second edition, which is just as invisible as the first. What’s more, the KB is one of very few organisation in the world to have the book on display in a showcase.

You can request The Invisible Book via the catalogue. If you do, you will be given a folder containing the appendix to the book: the receipt proving that we bought the book on 6 February 2015. 

Would you like to know more?

Paul van Capelleveen
Collection specialist