folk, outsider, and vernacular books

The following is the introduction to our third catalogue, which was devoted entirely to our growing specialty in folk, vernacular, and outsider books. It attempts to define the genre and argues for its deserving the attentions of the rare book world:


The inspiration for this collection came last year at a regional book fair in the booth of a colleague who dealt primarily in ephemera. I was holding what was to become item nineteen in this catalogue: two scrapbooks of dog cartoons excised and gathered over decades from the correspondence of two friends. I was struck not so much by the quality of the drawings (they were charming but a bit crude), nor even the captions to the cartoons (though often clever), but rather by the totality of the production; it told a story, not just about the dog portrayed, but about a friendship, all vividly evidenced in the making of the object itself. It was a story with characters (the dog, the friends), hints of plot (occasionally gathered from the letters' remaining fragments), and suggestions of conflict (why destroy the letters to keep the pictures?). In other words, as in any work of literature, I was reading two texts - a primary, literal one (the cartoons), and the more evocative subtext (the relationship between these two) - whose meanings arose from the particulars of the book's creation.

I bought the scrapbook, as much for personal reasons as for business, but I soon noticed anew other items of similar construct: diaries, photo albums, handmade books given as gifts, amateur manuscripts, etc. Certainly these have always been within the purview of the greater book trade, but as often as not such books were valued primarily for their content - whether historical or literary - and less for their form. These books, however, began to interest me primarily as books: works that could be appreciated as self-contained literary or artistic endeavors. And so I began to think of them almost as a genre unto themselves, one that despite sometimes disparate intentions or methods, shared certain conventions. These were items that were almost always unique, typically hand-made, and in most cases never meant to be published, items whose readership and purpose was intentionally quite limited, and whose "authors" in all likelihood didn't think of themselves as such. These were private (and in some cases, secret) books, but ones that - as I encountered them - seemed more and more contemporary.

For in our postmodern age, the storytelling techniques (even if unintentional) of these books are increasingly familiar: collage, juxtaposition, obscurity. To readers of modern literature, the often fragmentary nature of many of these books might seem conventional. Indeed, these works embody a rather post-structuralist aesthetic, one in which the reader at least as much as the author creates meaning.

As I began to gather the items for this catalogue, I thought of them at first as the bibliographic equivalent of "outsider" art or art brut. Sometimes the analogy worked; the book created by a Korean prisoner of war (item 18) could easily be viewed from this point-of-view. But increasingly I was reminded of the field of "vernacular photography" - compelling images taken by ordinary people who would have never considered what they were doing "art." Similarly, my goal with this catalogue has been to gather compelling books created by ordinary people: folk books.

I am aware of the ethical and aesthetic debates in the visual arts about the use and application of terms like "outsider" and "vernacular." I have tried to avoid the fray of these questions, opting instead for what I hope is a more democratic spirit - one inclusive of form, method, biography, approach, etc. The authors, compilers, and artists of these works would undoubtedly be surprised to find themselves in a "rare book catalogue." Nonetheless, I hope they would recognize the appreciation inherent in the inclusion.

-Brian Cassidy, Bookseller
February 2009