English professor explores books as works of art

Portrait of Garrett Stewart.

Photo by Ian D. Stewart.

When he set off for college, a young Garrett Stewart was sure he was going to be an architect.

Stewart had always been interested in the visual aspects of the field, “but I discovered in my first design class that I couldn’t think in 3-D,” he says. “Nowadays, of course, you can have a computer do that for you.” So, the frustrated freshman transferred to his other interest area, English, and it’s been his life’s work ever since.

Stewart, the James O. Freedman Professor of Letters in the Department of English in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been a professor at Iowa since 1993. He writes and teaches primarily on the British novel, literary theory, film, and art history.

Stewart’s interest lately, though, is books and how they are manipulated to create art or depicted in works of art. He examines this in his latest study, Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art.

UI President Sally Mason has selected Stewart to deliver this year’s presidential lecture on Feb. 12 in the fourth-floor assembly halls at the Levitt Center for University Advancement. The lecture grows out of his research in Bookwork.

fyi recently caught up with Stewart to learn more about his work.

Tell me about your work at the university. What courses do you teach? What are your main areas of research?

I teach mainly narrative in film and novels at the undergraduate level. In graduate seminars, I gravitate toward my publishing interests in Victorian fiction and poetics as well as narrative theory in both cinema and literature.

How did you end up at the University of Iowa?

My wife and I—Natasa Ďurovičová, now an editor at Iowa’s International Writing Program—were both ready for a change after years in California, and she had a teaching opportunity here at the same time that I was made an offer of the endowed Freedman chair. We happily raised two kids here, and have seen one, Ian, off to college, with Renata a junior at City High.

In February, you will give the UI Presidential Lecture, “Paper, Scissors, Ash: Defaced Books and the House of Fiction.” Could you tell me about the lecture and why it is important to share this information with a general audience?

Presidential lecture: the fine print

What: “Paper, Scissors, Ash: Defaced Books and the House of Fiction”

Who: Garrett Stewart, James O. Freedman Professor of Letters in the Department of English in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

When: The program begins at 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 12, with a musical performance by Robert Morse, a senior piano performance major in the School of Music in CLAS. UI President Sally Mason will introduce Stewart, who will speak for approximately one hour.

Where: Levitt Center for University Advancement, fourth-floor assembly halls. A public reception, including an exhibition of conceptual bookworks from the UI Libraries Special Collections, will follow in the Wyrick Rotunda in LCUA.

More info: www.uiowa.edu/
president/lecture/index.html

Everyone is interested lately in the fate of the traditional book under onslaught from digital technology, and that interest takes the curious form, in a surprising amount of conceptual art, of manipulated and unreadable book sculptures that are neither aggressive nor elegiac exactly, neither putting the nail in the book’s coffin nor mourning its eclipse, but instead developing spatial metaphors for the temporal experience of reading in its unique—whether or not enduring—form of the bound volume.

As part of the lecture, you will discuss the work of author Toni Morrison. Why did you decide to use Morrison’s work as an example?

Having written a book in the 1990s called Dear Reader, on both direct address to the audience in Victorian fiction and on scenes of private and family reading represented within the novels, I was especially alert lately to Toni Morrison’s resourcefulness in finding metaphors for the book-reading experience both in Jazz and in her latest novel, A Mercy. What further struck me was how close her figurations of reading are to the sculptural evocations and ironies of bookwork in conceptual art. That’s what I began to pursue for this lecture.

How did you come to this area of research?

That book I mentioned from 1996, Dear Reader, used Victorian portraits of reading as frontispieces for its chapters. But having collected far more images than I had chapters, I developed an itch to do something with them. I started looking into what art historians had said about the iconographic scene of reading. Very little, I found, so I wrote a follow-up book after visiting the museums of 11 different countries, called The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text (2006). Last year’s “sequel,” called Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art, allowed me to return to all the 3-D rather than 2-D images of books that had come into my peripheral vision when doing research on the painting project. And it is that subsequent study, concerned with what I call the bibliobjet, on which my lecture will build.

As an English professor, and given your current area of research, you must think a lot about books. What is your favorite book?

I’d have to say Dickens’s Great Expectations. Every word in it is perfect. It’s riotously funny and poignant all at once.