Bibliophilia: Children Looking At Books They Don’t Understand

Codex Seraphinianus
Codex Seraphinianus

Would you ever buy a book written in a language you couldn’t read? And for the purpose of this question I’m not talking about a language that you don’t currently read. Instead, I’m talking about a language that you’d never be able to read because it’s a language that’s doesn’t exist.  It’s a strange question to ask because it purposefully puts an advantaged person in a state of disadvantage. It’s a question that assumes literacy and then forces you into the darkness of illiteracy. But it is a question that has been asked by many authors in the past; and two of the authors who’ve asked it best are Xu Bing and Luigi Serafini.

Xu Bing and Luigi Serafini are both authors of books written in fictitious languages. Xu Bing’s book is entitled A Book from the Sky and is composed of what-looks-like-Chinese but is nothing more than unintelligible scrawling.  Luigi Serafini’s book is entitled Codex Seraphinianus and is a mock encyclopedia which features hundreds of surrealistic drawings surrounded by a fictitious language that is supposedly explaining them. Both of these texts are intriguing as they present the reader with an impossible task, yet each with a different purpose.

Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus is a wild book. What’s fun about it is that due to its layout and format the book looks like an encyclopedia. Yet because the pictures are so strange and the writing is unintelligible we are never given an explanation for what we are seeing. Serafini said of his book that he wanted his readers to feel “the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand.” The imagery in Codex Seraphinianus is truly wondrous. Some of the images are lovely, some disturbing, and some defy any expectation you might have. It presents the reader with puzzles that have no definite answers and is intent on provoking an array of emotions from wonder to fear.

Unlike the Codex Seraphinianus which uses graphic imagery to hint at a meaning to the “words” on the page Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky relies solely on the author’s fictitious language. Bing’s work was made in 1987 as a reaction to “Chairman Mao’s radical transformation of Chinese culture.” Xu Bing further explains the purpose of his work “To strike at the written word is to strike at the very essence of the culture. Any doctoring of the written word becomes in itself a transformation of the most inherent portion of a person’s thinking.”  So by transforming the language into meaningless symbols Xu Bing is uniting all cultures in an inherent illiteracy, showing the vulnerability of language, as well as engaging in “an aesthetic embrace of the principles of traditional writing.”

What I find so intriguing about both of these works is that they transform the fairly standard medium of a book into something much more. They use the intelligence of their readers to provoke befuddlement and find a beauty in the written word past its mere meaning. So what do you think? Have you ever come across a text written in a fictitious language? If so what was it and why do you think it was written like that? What are some other ways you seen authors use language in a subversive way? Would either of these works even qualify as book by your own standards? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on made up languages, surreal images, and how they can both make us feel like children.

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