Warren Lehrer’s illuminated novel A Life in Books is a book about a man who writes books – 101 to be exact – and they’re all created, excerpted, reviewed and illuminated by Warren, a graphic artist/writer who likes to create books about unusual people – and all of them with a visual exploration of their subject that offers us a deep and more intimate sense of who they are and what they’re about.
A Life in Books is so much more than a book, it’s an experience, really… as it pours out of Warren’s quirky imagination like a mellow single malt… to be sipped and savored. An acquired taste, yes, but definitely something to make time for.
It plays like a literary jazz riff, maybe like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Here’s Warren, fingers pumping up and down on the keys, laying down pungent notes, sparkling phrases, blowing lilting tunes about who we are and where we’re going. This crazily ambitious book, rich with art and artifice, sends us meandering through all the little cultural byways, pausing here and there to test our assumptions of how life is supposed to be in modern America. He does it in a way that often brings us up short, saying “hey, never thought about it that before, but yes, it sounds right…”
This illuminated novel pokes around the often invisible infrastructure of American life, soloing on subjects we’ve rarely given a second’s thought. But when he’s finished playing through one of his passages, we breathe it in, smile and turn the page, ready to discover where he’s taking us next.
Here’s what I can tell you for sure: Warren Lehrer is witty, ingenious, sly, serious, a graphic wizard and literary innovator. His earlier much-acclaimed work Crossing the Boulevard (created with his wife and partner, Judith Sloan) is a portrait of the multi-culti mix of people that populate their Queens neighborhood.
Boulevard was a graphical tour de force – focusing on stories and lives of immigrants from many lands who make their home in a cornucopia of cultures, individual styles and customs. And what great, mind bending stories. The book is rich with humanity captured in all its poignant glory. And just like the immigrants, breaking the boundaries of their old lives to come to the land of opportunity, Warren used his singular design sense to reform the frame of the page and refocus the eye. So, what do you do for an encore?
You use your background as a graphic designer, storyteller, humorist and satirist to explore the life work of your alter ego, Bleu Mobley. According to Warren, Bleu has evidently written 101 books and this illuminated novel, as Warren calls it, tells/shows us his story, including Bleu’s ruminations about his life, covers of his 101 books, artifacts, letters, reviews and excerpts from many of them. So the mystery of the man and the past 50 years or so of American history/culture he “lived” through come together in a mashup of “fact” and “fiction” leaving us to discover our own truths about how we view ourselves and our world.
For example, in one passage, Bleu is at a bar with a friend watching the Iran Contra scandal play out on television. They talk about the feds, spies and the government’s intelligence operations. Bleu decides to get a copy of his FBI file, which arrives highly redacted. So Bleu decides to use the file and create an artist’s book, De-Classified. We see sample pages – which are basically patterns of black and white as if inked by an artist gone mad, with almost no text left untouched. It’s at once clever, funny, curious and political – a reminder of those forces in our society that view almost any opposition as a threat to be wiped out. And this was created before Edward Snowden gave us all a new perspective on the NSA.
And so it goes…
But enough from me – here’s Warren giving the pitch:
Warren is a visual artist trapped in a world of words. So he makes A Life in Books a visual feast. There are the 101 covers, of course, but he’s taken his concept further with animation and music for the web, like this video from book number 95 showing his Illuminated Manuscripts.
In the guise of a children’s book, he wrote, or should I say Bleu wrote, How Bad People Go Bye-Bye – a pop-up book about capital punishment. An excerpt:
And then, in a world of psychobabble where every disorder is ordered, here’s the story of a planet with its own psychiatric disorder:
Warren has so many riffs and funky drum beats that each book is like a new melody – new styling, key and rhythm. This is a book to peruse. You want to sample it, tap your feet to its satiric melodies, smile with his sassy little horn bleeps and then put it down for the next time you can rock to its rhythms.
You can catch an interview with Warren from NPR’s Studio 360 here:
So what’s the takeaway? A Life in Books is fresh, funny and filled with little gems of wit and whimsy. I admire what Warren was trying to accomplish – giving us a memoir rich in memorabilia, that is at once revealing and mysterious, a commentary on ego, celebrity and American society. But while I love his graphic sensibility and imagination in service of his creative ambitions, for me the weakest part was the book excerpts. It was great fun encountering them as concepts, but too often a bit of a slog wading through them as text. If you find yourself a fan of Warren’s satiric sense of humor you will really like this book. And if you’re just curious about discovering a new way to tell a story, you should definitely check it out.