The Improbable, Issue No. 6 - The Act of Reading

The Improbable exists wholly due to the passion and good will of booksellers who give their time to write about books that intrigue them, that are not easy to describe or summarize, that provoke more questions than answers. In this latest issue, one of those pervasive questions seems to address the act of reading itself: how do I read this? Reading is an act governed by transparent conventions that most of us, most of the time, never give pause to think about. We follow words and images left to right, top to bottom, on screens and printed pages, that we understand have literal correspondences and intend specific meaning.

But the 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé used words and the space of the page in ever radical ways in Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, translated now by Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark and published as A Roll of the Dice by Wave Books. In both the original and this new translation, literal correspondences implode; the boundaries of the page are violated. So too in Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg's Holy Bible (published by MACK), a collage work that interrogates the relationship between violence and the divine by juxtaposing contemporary images with the entirety of the bible. In this issue of The Improbable, our reviewers discuss books in which readers are invited to read in tree, a new alphabet conceived by poet Katie Holten (About Trees, Broken Dimanche Press), to read between the images in South African artist Marlene Dumas's notebooks (Sweet Nothings, Walther König), and to read into a world in which all traditional paradigms are questioned, probed, and turned inside out in Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts (Graywolf). While this last book is not a visual-literary hybrid like most other books reviewed in The Improbable, it is a wholly uncategorizable book about what it means to live an uncategorizable life. The Improbable seems like the perfect place for it.

This is now the opportunity to thank our newest reviewers—Emma Wippermann at Book Thug Nation (Brooklyn), Simon Crafts at Alley Cat Books (San Francisco), and Clark Allen at Skylight Books (Los Angeles)—and our veterans, Katie Eelman from JP Papercuts, and Stephen Sparks from Green Apple whom we're particularly lucky to have writing and advocating for The Improbable.

You may have noticed that The Improbable took a somewhat long summer hiatus. This is due to the fact that The Improbable is produced by Siglio which means, as a one-person operation, my attention is most often diverted to bringing another handful of these unusual books into the world. That said, Siglio is possible only when connections between books, booksellers, and readers are forged, and Siglio is committed to a fertile landscape in which other independent publishers taking these same kinds of risks have the opportunity to make and sustain these connections too. All this depends ultimately on you, the reader and the bookseller, to demonstrate your own particular passion for the books you love—and for the cultivating a cultural landscape in which books like these thrive. I hope you'll help us by spreading the word about any book you discover here and about The Improbable as a special place to discover them.

—Lisa Pearson


The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson


Book Thug Nation (Brooklyn)


In bookshops, The Argonauts lives on display tables and in staff picks, those happy places whose only genre is ‘new,’ or ‘good.’ This is fitting; The Argonauts is an important book. It wraps us in the concerns of our time in that way a filtered photo obscures enough of the present to make it palatable, and sometimes beautiful.

You’ve likely read it or know someone who has, or have at least picked it off the shelf and read the first few pages, in which she is fucked in the ass and makes a declaration of love. That’s as raunchy as it gets, but Nelson gets much more graphic—which is clear code for ‘bodily’—when she writes about her body changing through pregnancy, her husband’s body changing by taking testosterone, her experience giving birth, her husband’s experience of his mother dying.

It’s not just memoir, though; it fills space in the world of interdisciplinary thought, and works “to break down whatever’s left of the partition between ‘ivory tower scholarship’ over there, and lived, embodied life over here,” as she says in her interview in Bomb with A.L. Steiner. She straddles those worlds: she is pregnant while giving a lecture on violence; her family life is in opposition to Lee Edelman’s theory of “no future”; she explicates her motherhood by citing Winnicott in the margins (a format aptly shared with Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse).

At times, it feels like Nelson is using her learning and her references to validate the personal, the bodily. It’s ok to talk about motherhood if she also talks about Winnicott. It’s ok to be uncertain if she quotes Deleuze and Parnet: “The aim is not to answer questions, it’s to get out, to get out of it.” Nelson’s intellectualism allows her to be heard in her discussion of breastfeeding, her husband’s transitioning, queer radicality, privilege. She recounts an event in which art critic Rosalind Krauss shames the feminist critic Jane Gallop for showing photos of herself and her baby during a lecture. Krauss let her criticism imply that Gallop’s work had once been great, but that motherhood had rotted her mind. Sometimes, Nelson’s citations of philosophy and criticism seem to be primarily intended to ensure that no one will attack her the same way.

Nelson says she writes, and is able to write, because she believes (through Wittgenstein) that “the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.” This is a thought that begins the book, and there are moments so beautiful in her writing that this guiding/permissive principle goes unquestioned. She doesn’t quite say things, but points to the beginning of an articulation so strong that it lingers in the mind, gaining momentum the more often the reader recalls it (e.g., “we develop, even in utero, in response to a flow of projections and reflections ricocheting off of us. Eventually, we call that snowball a self”). But as Olivia Laing pointed out in her review in The Guardian, Nelson’s unit of thought is not the chapter, but the paragraph—and her paragraphs are short. She’ll posit a thought and move on.

And there’s an equivocation there. She moves rapidly from thought to thought, as if her ideas are too hot to hold. She relies on the weightiness of a few words, then abandons them. For instance, when talking about Catherine Opie’s work, Nelson says, “There is something profound here, which I will but draw a circle around for you to ponder.” In her interview with A.L. Steiner, Nelson says that after working on a topic, “I usually feel I have exhausted the problem. Not solved it; I’m just exhausted with it. I thought about normativity and radicality enough, and now it’s time to go on to the next thing. I never know if I’ve gotten anywhere with it . . . Maybe it’s a cop-out, the whole ‘I’m just trying to pose the right questions’ thing.”


The Argonauts is published by Graywolf Press and distributed by FSG.

$23   HB   160 pages   ISBN: 978-1-55597-707-8   Pub date: May 2015


About Trees by Katie Holten


Green Apple Books on the Park (San Francisco) 


In The Tree, his classic essay on the interplay between the natural world and creativity, John Fowles writes, “If I cherish trees beyond all personal . . . need and liking of them, it is because of this, their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of mind—and because they also seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest its heart.”

Katie Holten’s About Trees seems inspired by the feeling that animates Fowles’ book, a deep and abiding affinity for our arboreal neighbors that seems less personal than it does instinctive. Holten, a visual artist who created a font composed of trees (A for Apple, B for Beech, C for Cedar, etc.) after working on a series of prints for an upcoming exhibit at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, has gathered in this anthology fifty texts relating to trees in all of their varieties—literal, figurative, biological—and, using her font, has translated each into tree. The effect of these translations is beautiful and also unsettling, with text rendered into often dense and illegible forests. The reader—inasmuch as we can read natural phenomena—cannot help but feel disoriented as About Trees poses vital questions about the nature of art and of nature in an age of environmental catastrophe; about the power of language to convey meaning; and about why and how we conceive of the natural world.

“Biology,” writes Brian J. Enquist in one of the anthologized pieces, “is basically all about trees.” Holten’s rich book—one in a potentially infinite series of similar books, she says—reminds us of that basic fact, and with it our inextricability from the natural world. If literature is looking for a way forward in the Anthropocene, surely this is a place from which to start.


About Trees is published by Broken Dimanche Press, distributed by RAM.

$32   PB   260 pages   ISBN: 978-3-943196-30-6   Pub date: October 2015


A Roll of the Dice by Stéphane Mallarmé, translated by Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno


Alley Cat Books (San Francisco)


Stéphane Mallarmé was in the process of correcting proofs of the original edition of Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard when he died in 1898. For this reason, no truly definitive text exists of his most famous and groundbreaking poem, a work that flirts with concrete poetry, free-verse, and even graphic design. Unfortunately, the hypothetical nature of any finished version of Un coup de dés has lead to an erratic publication history usually as limited-run art editions or intensely academic affairs dotted with laborious footnotes and buried in historical context.

Thankfully, Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno's new edition from Wave resuscitate the poem as something living, breathing, and as definitive as possible. It presents itself, plainly and humbly, as itself: a gorgeous, slim version of the famous poem in exclusively black and white. Inside it reads something like a Chris Marker or a Jean-Luc Godard film. There are no notes and no introductions (besides Mallarmé's own beautifully obtuse and confounding preface) and each turn of the page reveals a new elaboration on the slick production and type setting that would have certainly tickled the stylish and fashion conscious Mallarmé. Black and white photos of rolling waves and sea floors break-up the oversized text and illustrate the imagery and energy of the verse.

And what can you say about the actual poem? It is presented here in its original french and a new english translation that is a bit more contemporary in tone than previous editions have managed. How do I read this is? is probably the first and ultimate question of the work. The thing is a roaming take on the how-and-why of the printed page and by extension the mind itself. I'd suggest letting the immense white spaces of the page do whatever they want with you. Let them swallow you up and draw your mind wherever it desires, producing whatever “definitive” version any great poem arrives at in that gorgeous and immediate moment of readership.  


A Roll of the Dice is published Wave Books and distributed by Consortium/Perseus Group.

$25   HB   96 pages   bw illustration throughout   ISBN: 9781940696041   Pub date: April 2015


Holy Bible by Oliver Chanarin & Adam Broomberg


Skylight Books (Los Angeles)


It would seem logical that when attempting to create a book that is not a book, or perhaps a book that is beyond a book, then the model of one of the earliest books, and certainly the earliest book to truly transcend itself, must be used as a point of reference. The traditional Bible, with its depictions of piousness, madness, divinity, violence, juxtaposition and contradiction, could easily be claimed a foundation of (our shaky) Western Society. While mirroring it in spirit precisely, Broomberg and Chanarin's Holy Bible serves as an object that is less a book than a mirror; and a mirror being held to a mirror at that.

Holy Bible draws inspiration from the moral theory of Adi Ophir, which states that God’s depiction is best approximated in cataclysm. It also utilizes the aesthetic of Bertolt Brecht's personally annotated Bible, which he had heavily annotated and folded photographs within the pages, etc. The result is a story that is being un-written, and thus a Bible that not a scripture. By two artists, innumerable unnamed authors, and centuries of human innovation, Holy Bible is the portrait of god by Man rather than of man by God. Though one can look for hours, you'd hardly need to read a word.


Holy Bible is published and distributed by MACK.

$80   HB   768 pages, 614 color plates   ISBN: 9781907946417   Pub date: June 2013

Sweet Nothings by Marlene Dumas


Papercuts J.P. (Boston, MA)


While South African visual artist Marlene Dumas has spent decades creating arresting drawings, collages, and paintings, her new book Sweet Nothings is a synthesis of poems and notes on the subject of language present in her art. Sweet Nothings elaborates on a quality that distinguishes her work in general. She says of her use of language: “I want to name our pains. / I want to keep on changing our names.” She writes that she often uses language as a “foreign or aggressive element” in her works, and to the reader it rings true: a viewer can engage with most art while maintaining the freedom of interpretation, but when words are included in the style of Dumas’s works, the viewer is left with no other option but to stare straight on into the artist’s consciousness.

Dumas’s hand-written notes, scribbles, and doodles are treasures—a glimpse into the mind of such a bold, honest, and brave woman. She writes, “Art means never having to say you’re sorry,” and Sweet Nothings never does. It holds nothing back and does not apologize, daring the reader to delve deeper into Dumas’s extraordinary talent and vision.

Reading a poem by Marlene Dumas is not unlike viewing one of her paintings. Like her canvases, her texts are gripping. Often dark, and always mysterious, Dumas’s works, in words and in paint, are beautiful, even while sometimes being so raw it feels intrusive to gaze upon them for too long. While the subject of her writing is often Dumas herself, the speaker of the poems is “revealed” and not “displayed”; the contrast between these two is a theme that Dumas explores at length. The reader gains some understanding of the artist’s background, process, and demeanor, but never enough to feel as though Dumas is a cliché or a caricature.

Sweet Nothings is a learning experience that maintains Dumas’s secrets. “Human beings can’t live without secrets,” she says. “That which is most important to one’s well-being is not public relations.” One is left to wonder, then: if these musings on art, love, personhood, and place, all now in the public, are not most important to Dumas’s well-being, what is? Marlene Dumas’s secrets intrigue, but Sweet Nothings is likely the closest she will come to transparency.


Sweet Nothings published by D.A.P./Walther König and distributed by D.A.P./ Images below from Ambulant Design.  

$27.50   PB   256 pages/35 BW   ISBN: 9781938922831   Pub date: March 24, 2015