All: The Books I Never Wrote or Wrote and Never Published

Johanna Drucker

Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She is internationally known for her work in the history of graphic design, typography, experimental poetry, fine art, and digital humanities. A collection of her essays, What Is? (Cuneiform Press) was published in 2013 and Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Harvard University Press) appeared in 2014. Digital_Humanities, co-authored with Anne Burdick, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, (MIT Press) was published in 2012. In addition to her academic work, Drucker has produced artist‘s books and projects that were the subject of a retrospective, Druckworks: 40 years of books and projects, that began at Columbia College in Chicago in 2012. She is currently working on a database memoire, ALL the books I never wrote or wrote and never published. Recent creative projects include Diagrammatic Writing (Onomatopée, 2014), Stochastic Poetics (Granary, 2012), and Fabulas Feminae (Litmus Press, 2015). In 2014 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and awarded an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts by the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2017.

Creator's Statement

ALL is a memoir in the form of an “auto-bibliography.” This video documents the design, conceived as a coordinated printed book and online site. I wanted to create access to a repository of materials—about 260 manuscripts, plus photographs, graphics, and full pdfs of the works—while also offering a narrative reading experience. The memoir serves as a guide to the repository, but materials on the online site can be accessed directly, downloaded, read, and studied. The printed version of the project contains a single page scan of each work, and the same commentary that accompanies each manuscript online. The inter-relation of the two modes of production takes advantage of the fixed sequence of print and the open-ended-ness of online environments. A printed book containing all of these materials would be impossible to produce. Though many of the projects were short, or merely notes, more than a dozen are full, book-length manuscripts. But reading extensively online does not provide the kind of intimate experience that reading through a personal account in print does. The two parts complement each other, but each can stand alone.

The work’s subtitle, “the books I never wrote or wrote and never published” is meant to point to notes for projects never started or realized as well as finished manuscripts. Everything in the project is unpublished. What is interesting to me is the quantity and extent of this unpublished work, and the many ways it reveals my assumptions about writing. I wanted to write about that writing through the concept of the “auto-bibliography.” From an early age, I wrote, and some of the earliest manuscripts in this project go back to the 1960s when I composed poems and long prose pieces. Because it is a bibliographical study, the project uses manuscripts and their texts as a focal point. I am interested in teasing out from them an analysis or at least description of my understanding of writing at different points. What, for instance, did I think a novel was, or fiction, when I was writing a 400-page fictional work as a 12-year old? How did I write? The notebooks in which these early texts appear are not fair copies, but first drafts, written directly, almost without corrections or changes. But the compositional strategies shift from fictional accounts to clandestine writing when a teen relationship had many dimensions I felt had to be concealed, hidden, occluded and masked.

I began the project in 2008 as I was packing to move to California, and made representative scans of each manuscript. Because I knew I wanted to create a digital repository, I created a basic spread sheet of metadata, with unique IDs and other descriptive information. But the conceptual structure of the project—both in terms of technical implementation and in terms of critical engagement—continued to evolve as I worked on the design of the workflow. The challenge was to figure out where the primary writing space would be for providing the “autobibliographical” commentary on each work. The metadata had to be created in a structured data environment, but the commentary had to fit the space on each page of the prospective print output—two very different work spaces. In addition, trying to sort out the periodization of the work as well as the characterization of writing modes, attitudes, and forms gave rise to non-standard fields for description. These continue to change over time, but simple issues like whether a period is defined by where one lives, whether one is in school or working, by relationships, or by age and other aspects of life are interesting, and not trivial or easily decided. How do you describe a life? Is the identity of a creative work determined by that period or its relation to other works, outside influences, form and format, themes, compositional style, originating impulses—or any of a host of other factors? Creating descriptive metadata meant revisiting these issues on an ongoing basis. The modelling of the project was—and is—one of its intellectual and critical dimensions.

The video is made with still images. This focuses the viewer’s attention on the artifacts and their material features—rusted paper clips, different typewriter fonts, the torn edge of a sheet, the changes in handwriting and so on. But the still images also give the video a certain distance, a kind of remove from action, as if the works, and the scene of the project, are in a world apart, somehow suspended from the flow of contemporary life and time. Of course, I am working on the project in the present, and soon will post the first segment of the work online—up through the end of the 1970s, or the earliest two of the six decades in which the manuscripts were produced. Much more could—and may—be done with the networked environment to take advantage of the capacity to link, search, display, and work with the materials, adding other documentary materials such as correspondence, photographs, or images. Though the format of both online and print outputs appears quite simple, and straightforward, the amount of work required to get to the point of such basic presentation was considerable, and the workflow, though now smooth, is still labor intensive. The online project is entirely hand-coded in XML and HTML, to make it robust, but also, easy to manage. The production involves tracking each piece, each link, each image in various sizes and formats for print and browser, dealing with version control, editing, sequencing the works, and creating the order of the online pages.

In many ways, this is a work of nostalgia and memory, recuperation, attention to the very acts of writing that were intended, from the outset, to preserve not only experience—but the ephemeral experience of living itself—through acts of inscription as well as composition.