An Interview with Judith Schalansky Books are not a form of fetishism

Judith Schalansky; Photo: © Johanna Ruebel
Judith Schalansky | Photo (detail): © Johanna Ruebel

Analogue copying and pasting, and books in the form of a wall newspaper: Judith Schalansky not only writes books, she designs them too. In our interview she explains why texts need pictures and how to create stories the reader can take hold of.

Ms Schalansky, does a beautiful book pose a risk to its content?

It is the opposite of a risk. It is the guarantee that one has really spent time on something. It may be risky for publishing houses, as they cannot simply play through the standard situation. What is more, not every book is a “most beautiful” book. When it comes to intertwining form and content, however, it is worth it.

In 2012, your book “Der Hals der Giraffe” (i.e. The Giraffe’s Neck) was named “the most beautiful German book” by Stiftung Buchkunst. What came first, form or content?

The idea to write a book about a biology teacher. By the time I was writing the second chapter, however, I already wanted to know what the book would look like from the outside. I wanted The Giraffe’s Neck to be like a biology book.

The book has a traditional feel, is bound in linen, has an embossed title, and depicts the skeleton of a giraffe. Does the book’s external appearance mirror the story inside?

The linen binding of the German edition is an attempt to let the reader experience the main character, Inge Lohmark, by touch. At first, the book appears aloof, yet it feels good when we actually take it in our hands. I wanted to achieve the same thing with the narrative perspective: we see the world through the eyes of the biology teacher Inge Lohmark, and at the beginning of the book we think she is awful, with her social Darwinist theories. Bit by bit, however, we build up a relationship with her and she loses her monstrosity.

Texts need pictures

Why are there pictures in “The Giraffe’s Neck”?

The pictures are icons from biology lessons and closely accompanied the writing process. I had to show them: diagrams depicting things like crossbreeding between two breeds of cattle influence the way people read. In this sense, the pictures also symbolize the educational concept of clarity.

Is writing also a visual process for you?

Absolutely! I have developed a kind of analogue method of copying and pasting: I write down what I want to say by hand, transfer my notes onto the computer, print them out and then cut out the different segments in order to rearrange them. I use the pictures to make a wall newspaper.

A wall newspaper?

Yes, it’s a term that was used in East Germany: at school, we had a wooden frame covered with canvas on which photographs and articles were displayed. I always need to see the book before me.

What other role does seeing play in your work?

A very important role! Intellectually speaking, visual stimuli are always given low priority – that which is abstract is the highest level, while illustrations are for children and idiots. There’s something wrong about that. It’s crazy to believe that a text does not require any pictures.

While you were at university, you wrote a book about Fraktur typefaces, then a seafaring novel called the “Atlas of Remote Islands” and a Bildungsroman – how do you come up with your ideas?

My aim with every book is to show that science is also poetry and that the distinction between fact and fiction is not quite as clear as we believe. Perhaps all that I’m doing is working my way through the subjects I did at school, however (laughs). For me, every book is a research project: I enjoy researching at the Berlin State Library and come up with my themes by engaging with other texts and books.

It is nice when books become dirtyn

Do you see books as collector’s items or as functional objects?

Both. When I buy a book, I make a promise to the book that I will read it. At the same time, however, I am thoroughly opposed to treating books as a form of fetishism and locking them away behind glass. It is nice when books become dirty, when we leave our marks on them. That is what is special about this medium, and makes them different from electronic books.

Do eBooks pose a challenge for you as a creator of books?

No, eBooks do not interest me. But now people at last need to develop an awareness for books and ask themselves why a text was published as a printed book rather than as an eBook.

Why do you prefer printed books?

Because they are in character with me. As a child, I always dreamt of a book that would replace all other books. A universal book that would teach me how to survive in the wilderness and would give me comfort in anxious moments. I would like to create a book like that.

Perhaps it will be possible in future to create a universal book electronically…

Oh well, I think I’ll be quite glad if I’m no longer around to see that happen.

Judith Schalansky was born in Greifswald on 20 September 1980. She studied history of art at the Freie Universität Berlin and communication design at Potsdam University of Applied Sciences. While still at university, she published a book entitled Fraktur mon amour (2006). This was followed by Blau steht dir nicht (2008) and the Atlas of Remote Islands (2009), for which she was awarded first prize in the “Most Beautiful Books of the Year” competition. In 2011 she achieved her breakthrough with the novel Der Hals der Giraffe, which was named “Most Beautiful German Book” of 2012. In the spring of 2013, she will be publishing a series of books entitled Naturkunden.