From Reading Material to Building Material, the Latest Use for Books

Slate's Culture Blog
July 25 2012 1:06 PM

The Latest Way to Use Books: As Building Material

aMAZEme
The aMAZEme exhibition at the Southbank Centre.

Photo courtesy Southbank Centre.

Books are renowned for building worlds, and sometimes they do so literally. From July 31 to August 26, the Southbank Center in London will play host to “aMAZEme,” a vast labyrinth constructed from 200,000 books. The project, dreamed up by Brazilian artists Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo, features 500 square meters worth of winding, 8-foot walls. But the maze’s most unusual aspect might be the shape it takes when seen from a bird’s-eye view: a single, swirling fingerprint.*

With their design, Saboya and Pupo have created a monument to the tactility of books. E-readers may be everywhere, and libraries’ days may be numbered, but the maze won’t let us forget that our narratives used to have physical properties, like heft, smell, and texture. (Someday I imagine I will reminiscence to my grandchildren about the good old days when stories had spines.) With their labyrinth, Saboya and Pupo seem to be arguing that you “get lost” in bound books in a peculiar, irreproducible way. 

Saboya and Pupo are not the first to transform reading material into building material. Back in April, Flavorwire rounded up a full “10 Gorgeous Buildings Made Out of Books,” and others have used books to construct Christmas trees, chairs, and even bookshelves.

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There’s something nostalgic about book repurposing as an artistic genre. At minimum, it shows us working to keep bound books relevant, albeit in a different form. But are we really doing the printed objects a favor by extending their life in this way?

*The fingerprint, by the way, belongs to one of the artists—not to Jorge Luis Borges, as has been suggested elsewhere, although his famously labyrinthine stories inspired the installation.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.