The Taboo Art of Altered Books

ta·boo–adjective 1.proscribed by society as improper or unacceptable

Improper?! Unacceptable?! Says who?

Look, I am a book person. I have a personal library of over 800 books. My most precious book, a 50th anniversary edition of The Little Prince, has its very own shelf. Heck, I even work at a book store. So why would I of all people choose altered books as my medium? Aren’t books precious, not meant to be written in or torn up or painted on? Isn’t that something every child who holds a book in their hands learns is taboo?

And yet I regularly tear out pages, cut them up, glue them together, paint on them, add collage, soak them in beeswax, cover them in fabric, stamp on them-usually rendering the original book unrecognizable. I would never do this to The Little Prince. But an outdated encyclopedia? A worn children’s book? A book I found in the recycling bin? As far as I am concerned, these are all fair game for altering. I am taking something that was headed for the trash bin and using it as my canvas instead. It goes from being a worthless object to a very precious one. This is a metaphor that anyone can hook in to. Who hasn’t at times felt dusty, outdated, useless? What if we could (and guess what, we can) transform ourselves into an object of beauty and worth? Altering a book is a powerful metaphor for how we can alter ourselves and I find that my clients and students are very responsive to this idea.

The clients I currently work with live in a world filled with rules. An inpatient psychiatric setting by its nature is rule bound. Very few decisions are yours to make. When you get up, when you take meds, what you eat, who you share a room with, what time you have to be back on the unit, what you do all day……..the list goes on and on. None of this is unique to where I work by the way, it is just the way this kind of hospital works. Altering a book is a small but powerful way to practice making your own decisions and doing something safe that is also a little risky. It hands some power back to the clients.

My students make altered books to chronicle their training journey. So much personal growth happens on the way to becoming a therapist, and an altered book is the perfect way to capture it. The books allow for multiple and contained expressions of the many issues that come up while in training. Students deal with concepts such as self-disclosure, transference and counter-transference, learning how to use supervision and termination and the books help them to process all the attendant feelings. As a teacher, I got tired of my students doing one-off art pieces in class that they ended up throwing away. With the books, they can do a small art piece in every class and it is contained in a journal form. At the end of the academic year, they have a chronicle of their journey.

Why do I use altered books in my personal and professional work? Why wouldn’t I? I see the “rules” and “taboos” about defacing books as merely suggestions. I encourage you to work with the discomfort that may arise as you explore the art of altered book making. It just might transform you.  


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Sue Dyson
    Aug 20, 2011 @ 06:54:21

    Hey Jen, great idea to use old books. I love to art journal and this is a brilliant, unique way to approach it. Endless possibilities! Thanks.


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