The best avant garde books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about avant garde and why they recommend each book.

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The Alphabet Man

By Richard Grossman,

Book cover of The Alphabet Man

Grossman achieves something remarkable in The Alphabet Man. The work manages to weave together visual, avant-garde graphic design, literary poetry, and a suspenseful thrilling plot. The book itself is gorgeous to look at it, and the text layout is designed as a work of art. Grossman seamlessly blends these disparate elements into a unified, unique creation that breaks the boundaries of what a novel can be. 


Who am I?

As a writer, artist, and actor throughout my life, I’ve explored and enjoyed many artistic forms. While I appreciate books across many genres, I elevate to the highest level those works that manage to break conventional boundaries and create something original. In my own work, I have always challenged myself to create something unique with a medium that has never been done before. At the same time, I have sought to discover a process and resulting work that inspires readers’ own creativity and challenges them to expand their imagination. 


I wrote...

A Greater Monster

By David David Katzman,

Book cover of A Greater Monster

What is my book about?

A psychedelic fairytale for the modern age, A Greater Monster is a mind-bending poetic trip into a radically twisted alternate reality that reflects civilization like a funhouse mirror. A Greater Monster crosses boundaries with illustrations, graphic design, and hidden links to animation and original music. Throughout the experience, you'll encounter sphinxes, gods, living skeletons, witches, and quite possibly the strangest circus ever imagined. Innovative and astonishing, A Greater Monster breathes new life into the possibilities of fiction. Received a Gold Medal as Outstanding Book of the Year in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

“I can't express how brilliant my favorite scenes in A Greater Monster are. In this extraordinary work, Katzman pushes language to do things, which are truly astounding.” Carra Stratton, Editor, Starcherone Press

XX

By Rian Hughes,

Book cover of XX

A hugely ambitious mix of text and graphic design, in which typography is used in bold and disarming ways. It is also a genuinely compelling sci-fi novel about very, very, big ideas. Filled with meta-narratives, in-jokes, artistic references, and mixed media, it’s an interesting alternative to that other oft-cited cult classic House of Leaves. As someone who has worked as both designer and editor, I was blown away by Hughes’s ability to combine a good story with such avant-garde design. The themes communicated will give you much to contemplate – or ramble on about to any friends you successfully corner. A staggering achievement destined to be a future cult classic.


Who am I?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with cultural curiosities, extraordinary eccentrics, secret societies, decadent dandies, rebels, devils, and anything weird and wonderful. I parlayed a love of Word and Image into a career in the arts and worked for places including Tate, Thames & Hudson and the British Library. But to be honest with you, that was just a ruse so I could spend more time delving through interesting books and prints. Some people see the world a little differently; I think we all benefit by spending a bit of time in the company of their art. "It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through."


I wrote...

Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut

By Jon Crabb,

Book cover of Graven Images: The Art of the Woodcut

What is my book about?

While working in the British Library’s publishing department, I spent happy hours pondering "Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore." At some point, I stumbled on their collection of Early Modern ballads and pamphlets. I was entranced by the crude, bizarre, and often hilarious woodcuts that illustrated them, and set about collecting the most striking and amusing examples. 

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw an explosion of cheap printed materials, made possible by the advent of woodblock printing and mass-produced paper. Unlike expensively bound books, these broadsides were not produced for the intellectual elite, but pasted on walls and distributed among the masses. They uniquely capture the obsessions of the time; namely monsters, witches, alcohol, and scandal.

Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age

By Malcolm Le Grice,

Book cover of Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age

LeGrice was a founder of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op in 1968 and has worked ever since as a film and video maker, teacher, and writer. His book collects a large number of theoretical and critical essays on a range of topics, from film as material to the way films variously position the spectator as a consumer and/or self-conscious critic, to comparisons between film and digital media, in aesthetic, technological, and ecological terms. The essays are always approachable, even when he is discussing more abstract theoretical problems. Many examples are discussed.


Who am I?

I am an artist-filmmaker, writer, and Professor of Experimental Film at the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, Kent, UK. I have worked at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op and BBC TV. I have been making films since 1974 and teaching since 1988. I have published extensively on Artists’ Film / Experimental Cinema. I have edited and contributed chapters to numerous other books and journals, including Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, Film Quarterly, Sequence, and others. I have completed over 70 single screen works in 16mm and video, gallery film and video installations, and multi-projector film performances. These have been screened worldwide.


I wrote...

Film Art Phenomena

By Nicky Hamlyn,

Book cover of Film Art Phenomena

What is my book about?

This book is a critical study of aspects of artists’ cinema / experimental film, video, and sound. There is an emphasis on the nature of the medium in order to explore a range of approaches to non-fiction filmmaking, in which film and video are treated as akin to the other visual arts - painting and sculpture. Through a close study of a number of works, the discussion covers a range of topics, from framing to digital media, installation to interactivity, point of view to sound, and synchronisation. The work of eminent artists such as Stan Brakhage, Malcolm Le Grice, and Michael Snow is considered, as well as younger makers such as Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Jennifer Nightingale, and Colin Crockatt.

Cinema by Other Means

By Pavle Levi,

Book cover of Cinema by Other Means

While written from a Yugoslav perspective, this book is a fascinating study of films made using unconventional methods, materials, and equipment, including ‘written films’: films that exist as texts and that would be impossible to make as films. Levi draws on the historical and the post-war avant-garde; Dada, Surrealism, Lettrisme, Structural-Materialist film, and other movements that constitute a material and ideological rejection of conventional cinema and the way it treats the medium as a mere means to an end. In these works, produced in Japan, Europe, and the USA, the technology is turned on itself, interrogated, and repurposed to anti-illusionistic ends.


Who am I?

I am an artist-filmmaker, writer, and Professor of Experimental Film at the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, Kent, UK. I have worked at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op and BBC TV. I have been making films since 1974 and teaching since 1988. I have published extensively on Artists’ Film / Experimental Cinema. I have edited and contributed chapters to numerous other books and journals, including Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, Film Quarterly, Sequence, and others. I have completed over 70 single screen works in 16mm and video, gallery film and video installations, and multi-projector film performances. These have been screened worldwide.


I wrote...

Film Art Phenomena

By Nicky Hamlyn,

Book cover of Film Art Phenomena

What is my book about?

This book is a critical study of aspects of artists’ cinema / experimental film, video, and sound. There is an emphasis on the nature of the medium in order to explore a range of approaches to non-fiction filmmaking, in which film and video are treated as akin to the other visual arts - painting and sculpture. Through a close study of a number of works, the discussion covers a range of topics, from framing to digital media, installation to interactivity, point of view to sound, and synchronisation. The work of eminent artists such as Stan Brakhage, Malcolm Le Grice, and Michael Snow is considered, as well as younger makers such as Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Jennifer Nightingale, and Colin Crockatt.

The Dinosaur Heresies

By Robert T. Bakker,

Book cover of The Dinosaur Heresies

It is Bakker’s controversial rethinking of the lives and science behind earth’s prehistory. In his avant-garde ideas, Bakker proposes and answers questions of things like what these monsters are and how they defended themselves or hunted. He even spoke on how they might have reproduced.

It’s a book to create dreamers who can take the torch to shed new light on those questions we all share in common as members of humanity.


Who am I?

As a decades-long collector of fossils & student of undiscovered and/or extinct creatures, I’ve gained traction in both fields on a professional level, which is what my spark ignited into. My choice for the final position could’ve been a tie between The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien, Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny, Farseer by Robert J. Sawyer, but since I could only choose 5 which sparked the dreamer.


I wrote...

Murder Red Ink

By Mord McGhee,

Book cover of Murder Red Ink

What is my book about?

In Murder Red Ink, Mord McGhee imaginatively explores the incomprehensible depths of horror, human nature, and captures the brutal reality of the monster behind the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 in a science fiction whirlwind of the darkest sort. 

Mount Analogue

By René Daumal,

Book cover of Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures

This book is one of my all time favorite reads. Mount Analogue is a short poetic novel. Daumal’s rich descriptions and symbolism engaged my imagination and made me think deeply about the story’s meaning. The author takes readers on a journey to a mystical place with an unusual set of characters and strange circumstances. The story revolves around an adventurous sailing and climbing expedition to a mystical mountain hidden from the world’s inhabitants which is believed to link the earth to a higher sphere of reality. It’s full of intrigue and packed with pithy philosophical statements worth pondering. Daumal’s words and descriptions are so thought-provoking, that I used a quote from this book as the opening to my memoir, If I Live Until Morning.


Who am I?

Jean Muenchrath wrote down her story to heal herself from the trauma of a life-threatening mountaineering accident, an epic survival incident, and decades of chronic pain. She then published her memoir to inspire readers to follow their dreams and to encourage them to overcome whatever challenges their life presents. Before she became an author, Muenchrath was a park ranger with the National Park Service for over thirty years. She’s led trekking tours in Nepal and Thailand and worked in Bhutan with the World Wildlife Fund. Jean enjoys traveling to foreign lands, exploring wild places and sitting quietly in meditation.


I wrote...

If I Live Until Morning, A True Story of Adventure, Tragedy and Transformation

By Jean Muenchrath,

Book cover of If I Live Until Morning, A True Story of Adventure, Tragedy and Transformation

What is my book about?

After skiing more than 200 miles along California's John Muir Trail, Jean faces death from a mountaineering accident on Mount Whitney. Broken and bleeding on the highest peak in the continental United States, she vows to realize her greatest dreams if she lives until morning. Her escape from the Sierra Nevada Mountains turns into an amazing five-day survival story. Jean's recovery is equally daunting. In this outdoor adventure memoir, her three-decade journey takes her from the depths of despair and chronic pain, to the heights of the Himalayas and on travels around the world. When the specter of Mount Whitney continues to shatter her life, Jean befriends Tibetan lamas. Their ancient wisdom guides her on a path beyond her wildest dreams.

The Exploits of Engelbrecht

By Maurice Richardson,

Book cover of The Exploits of Engelbrecht

The stories that appear in this book were first published in Lilliput in the 1940s, a British monthly magazine. They relate the perilous, often diabolical activities of the Surrealist Sportsman’s Club, a society devoted to playing games that no one else would dream of attempting. Engelbrecht is a diminutive boxer who fights clocks, zombies, witches, and other assorted horrors and marvels, and he generally wins because of pluck combined with luck. Richardson’s prose style here is a blend of gothic horror, period science fiction, and the wisecracking of Damon Runyan, and the reader can expect no respite from the tumult of ideas, images, situations, jokes, and subversion of clichés.


Who am I?

The world is a strange place and life can feel very weird at times, and I have long had the suspicion that a truly imaginative and inventive comedy has more to say about reality, albeit in an exaggerated and oblique way, than much serious gloomy work. Comedy has a wider range than people often think. It doesn’t have to be sweet, light, and uplifting all the time. It can be dark, unsettling and suspenseful, or profoundly philosophical. It can be political, mystical, paradoxical. There are humorous fantasy novels and short story collections that have been sadly neglected or unjustly forgotten, and I try to recommend those books to readers whenever I can.


I wrote...

My Rabbit's Shadow Looks Like a Hand

By Rhys Hughes,

Book cover of My Rabbit's Shadow Looks Like a Hand

What is my book about?

A novella that makes use of playful experimental techniques to tell the strange story of an entertainer who specialises in creating rabbits from shadows. He creates twelve special shadow rabbits who communicate with him via stories and poems that are fully contained works but also interact with each other to form a bigger story. These twelve narratives are set in a frame by another story and it turns out that this framing story is also potentially framed in a much larger cosmos. My Rabbit's Shadow Looks Like a Hand is a fantasy tale, a romance, and an example of philosophical speculative fiction with a humorous slant.

Sometimes You Have to Lie

By Leslie Brody,

Book cover of Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

As a native New Yorker and lifelong fan of Harriet the Spy (one among legions) reading the product of Leslie Brody’s detective work into the life of her creator is a special pleasure. Born in 1928, Fitzhugh was the product of a high society Memphis marriage that ended in scandal. She went on to live a vibrant, turbulent life in the queer artist and writers scene in New York. It makes total sense that someone who straddled so many different worlds had such a deep understanding of the multiple lives we all lead, and such a keen ability to perceive other people, all of which she poured into her characters. I also recommend her other incredible YA novel, Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, which tackles race, children’s rights, and the profound beauty of tap dancing.


Who am I?

I spent my childhood reading for pleasure, for escapism, for humor, for reassurance, for different views of the world, and even out of sheer boredom sometimes when there was nothing else to do. I have no doubt it’s what made me into a writer. In retrospect, it makes total sense that my first book was about the history and power of a children’s series. When I found myself immersed in not just my old Nancy Drews but the fascinating stories of the people and times that produced her, it was like being back in my childhood bedroom again, only this time with the experience to understand how what I read fit into the larger story of America, feminism, and literature. I hope the books I’ve recommended will inspire you to revisit your old favorites with a new eye.


I wrote...

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

By Melanie Rehak,

Book cover of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

What is my book about?

A plucky “titian-haired” sleuth solved her first mystery in 1930. Eighty million books later, Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the sixties (when she was taken up with a vengeance by women’s libbers) to enter the pantheon of American girlhood. As beloved by girls today as she was by their grandmothers, Nancy Drew has both inspired and reflected the changes in her readers’ lives. Here, in a narrative with all the vivid energy and page-turning pace of Nancy’s adventures, Melanie Rehak solves an enduring literary mystery: Who created Nancy Drew? And how did she go from pulp heroine to icon?  
 
The brainchild of children’s book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy was brought to life by two women: Mildred Wirt Benson, a pioneering journalist from Iowa, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a well-bred wife and mother who took over as CEO after her father died. In this century-spanning story, Rehak traces their roles—and Nancy’s—in forging the modern American woman.

Derek Jarman's Garden

By Derek Jarman, Howard Sooley (photographer),

Book cover of Derek Jarman's Garden

Derek Jarmon was a British avant-garde filmmaker, theater designer, and life-long gardener. In the last decade of his life, he built a new garden at a tiny house by the sea in Kent. Prospect Cottage sits on the shingle expanse overlooking the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station and the English Channel. It was an accidental garden, this arrangement of rocks and driftwood, flowers, and found objects. The book sings. Jarmon’s musings and poems wind through a small volume of 140 pages; there are 150 photographs. It is a book about why we garden, how to live, and how to die.


Who am I?

My husband sums up my biography as “I am, therefore I dig.” I live, garden, read and write in Chatham, New Jersey, and have had a long, open love affair with the gardening style “across the pond.” At the New York Botanical Garden I teach English garden history, and I’m a regular contributor to the British gardening journal, Hortus. In my writing, I follow the relationship between the pen and the trowel, that is authors and their gardens. I’ve written books about children’s authors Beatrix Potter and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and, as you might imagine, the research trips to the UK were a special bonus.


I wrote...

Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett

By Marta McDowell,

Book cover of Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett

What is my book about?

New York Times bestselling author Marta McDowell has revealed the way that plants have stirred some of our most cherished authors, including Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her latest, she shares a moving account of how gardening deeply inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the beloved children's classic The Secret Garden.

In Unearthing The Secret Garden, best-selling author Marta McDowell delves into the professional and gardening life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Complementing her fascinating account with charming period photographs and illustrations, McDowell paints an unforgettable portrait of a great artist and reminds us why The Secret Garden continues to touch readers after more than a century. This deeply moving and gift-worthy book is a must-read for fans of The Secret Garden and anyone who loves the story behind the story.

Black Popular Culture

By Michele Wallace,

Book cover of Black Popular Culture

I am recommending this book, because it is the first edited volume, and, really, the first academic book to directly engage black popular culture as a field of study. It was avant-garde. It gave a name to cultural productions that, at that time, during my first semester of graduate school in 1997, I had no idea had a collective name. I love this book, because I encountered it simultaneously to learning concepts like “high” and “low” art. The book, in my opinion, made a compelling argument for why the popular, the folk, the vernacular, and so-called “low” art matters.


Who am I?

I am a scholar of African Diaspora cultural studies, which means I spend a lot of time analyzing texts in various forms: books, art, film, music, and even laws and legal documents. The cultural texts I study were produced by people. I am passionate about Black popular culture, because it dismantles some of the enduring divisions between academic institutions and the people who live beyond their walls. It is a field of study that is always in flux, especially now with twenty-first-century advances that position popular culture as almost always at our fingertips.


I edited...

Are You Entertained?: Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century

By Simone C. Drake (editor), Dwan K. Henderson (editor),

Book cover of Are You Entertained?: Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

The advent of the internet and the availability of social media and digital downloads have expanded the creation, distribution, and consumption of Black cultural production as never before. At the same time, a new generation of Black public intellectuals who speak to the relationship between race, politics, and popular culture has come into national prominence. The contributors to Are You Entertained? address these trends to consider what culture and blackness mean in the twenty-first century's digital consumer economy.

In this collection of essays, interviews, visual art, and an artist statement the contributors examine a range of topics and issues, from music, white consumerism, cartoons, and the rise of Black Twitter to the NBA's dress code, dance, and Moonlight. Analyzing the myriad ways in which people perform, avow, politicize, own, and love blackness, this volume charts the shifting debates in Black popular culture scholarship over the past quarter-century while offering new avenues for future scholarship.

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