Book Title: Book From the Ground: from point to point
Author: Xu Bing (also listed as Bing Xu)
Style: Illustrated Novel
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Unique
Page Count: 120
Format: Hardback (library)
Reading time: 1.5 hours
Date Finished: 1/19/17
Click here to find it on Amazon (New window)
My impressions: Huh. I’ve never read anything like Book From the Ground, and I doubt I ever will, either – unless you could people trying to be clever on social media using emojis to tell a story. Book From the Ground is sort of a logical extension of that conceit – it contains no words and uses icon-style imagery to tell the story of a day in a man’s life.
And before I say anymore, here’s just one page of this book. See if you can figure out what’s going on:
(If you’re struggling to understand the icons, don’t fret; this page details how the protagonist opens the door, receives a package (from Amazon, apparently!) with a book inside. He closes the door, smiles, reads the book and drinks some coffee while he does so. Then, he realizes his breakfast on the stove is on fire, and he puts it out with his coffee. He’s sad as he realizes his bacon, eggs and toast are ruined, and tries to find something else to eat. He considers his options, opens up a carton of milk, drinks it, realizes he’s still hungry as he hears his stomach growling, realizes he can make some microwave popcorn and then puts it in the microwave, sets the timer and waits for it to pop.)
And yes, every page in the book is just like that. The entire story details scenes like this, including nearly being late for work, browsing email, going through some online dating profiles (and later, having an arranged date!), learning that a friend’s girlfriend is cheating on him (and later, consoling said friend at the bar) and being forced to give a presentation on electric hybrid cars at work. There’s quite a bit of story in this slim volume, and the icons are very creatively used to tell it.
Author Xu Bing put this book together to show how the expression of ideas doesn’t require literacy, and what’s interesting is that how the reader interprets the story is as much a function of how he/she interprets the icons as it is how much emotion the reader projects onto the characters once the story is understood. Xu Bing’s previous art installation and book series, Book From the Sky, accomplished an opposite feat by using pseudo-Chinese characters as writing that had no meaning and which was intended to render any reader illiterate.
I found this book frustrating and delightful; it required me to read in a way I’m not used to, and I alternated between sighing and laughing as I got through it. I then went back and read certain sections again, recognizing that the story does a good job of setting up various plot points and recurring themes throughout. It’s a very peculiar form for a pretty mundane story, but the fun is in untangling meaning from the icons and plumbing the depths that are there. Xu Bing spent years putting this together, and the effort clearly shows.
(Note: I have not read the book about the development of Book From the Ground, but I’m sure it’s also interesting, and I notice it has a translation of the pictographs for those who want to spoil their own fun!)