The Year-Book

This collaborative art installation was on display in February 2014 as part of the Impossible Books group show at the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym. Writers and sculptors collaborated to build and write elements of an impossible book.

Art: Geoff Thompson
Text: Matthew Jakubowski

Materials: wood, metal, canvas, paper, ink, glass, wire, plastic, found objects.
(Photos below)

“This book takes one year to read,” wrote Agnes Fahrenholtz (b. 1932) in a 1971 journal entry. “Readers must spend a year as alone as possible with the book. If they are interrupted for more than a few minutes by another person or a machine their memories of the year-book will crumble and they will have to begin again.

“Reading the year-book will not exhaust readers. They can sleep without forgetting what they read and, in fact, reading the book will prolong life. It slows the aging process by easing readers into a meditative state. A person who read the year-book more than once would live longer, but in solitude.”

Fahrenholtz believed this was possible because she poured nearly a decade of her life into the book and tested it extensively. After losing her husband and older brother in the Korean War, she devoted her time to writing in solitude. Early drafts of her “word-continuum,” as she called it at first, earned her a lifelong stipend from The Rockefeller Foundation in 1965.

Fahrenholtz then wrote more than 4 million words from February 1965 to May 1974. The text was later typed onto continuous paper rolls, at the author’s request, to give the word-continuum “a flowing, healing form.”

“To read is to reject the world around us for a little while,” wrote Fahrenholtz. “My year-book demands commitment, a tour of duty that will push the end of life further away. Unlike soldiers at war, whose absence fills the family with dread of death, and ends at best with the return of a shattered soul, readers of the year-book will create a hopeful, peaceful absence for their loved ones.”

The paper roll inside The Year-Book displayed a collage text. Writers from around the world graciously donated text fragments, which were blended together and typed onto the paper roll. I would like to thank the following writers for their donations:

  • Anonymous | Kolkata, West Bengal, India
  • John W. Dickson | Willaston, Douglas, Isle of Man
  • Hugh Fulham-McQuillan | Dublin, Ireland
  • Erica Mena-Landry | Providence, Rhode Island
  • David Nahm | Harrisonburg, Virginia
  • Daniel Nicholls | Yuma, Arizona
  • Michael Stein| Prague, Czech Republic

At the Impossible Books opening reception on Feb. 7, 2014, a message was read from Agnes Fahrenholtz:

Hello, Philadelphia, from sunny Santiago, Chile. I want to thank Geoff and Matt for getting in touch to learn more about my work, and for this exhibit of a draft of an early year-book. I am grateful for their interest in a project first conceived so long ago. Geoff and Matt asked me to send an update about my work and give an overview of the project’s history, so here I go.

I finished writing and testing the first year-book in 1974. Since then, the healing power of year-books has grown as more people have committed their time to gain strength from the reading experience. I’m also proud to say that the year-book is no longer just an American oddity. So far, year-books have been written and tested in thirteen countries and eight different languages. Each day, as more year-books are written around the globe, the concept nears greater realization to become a true word-continuum that encompasses what it means to be human.

For my part, against the advice of many people who love me but do not believe as strongly as I do in my work, I have spent 26 of the past 40 years reading year-books. I will be 82 years old this summer and I am happy to report that I feel very strong. Not quite as strong as I did in 1974, but so strong it sometimes makes me stop and marvel in gratitude at how all this has happened.

My health and the good health of others who have read year-books is one of the main reasons I remain so confident in my theories. My doctors are regularly astonished at the good state of my health. And I couldn’t travel as far or as often as I do, when I’m not in seclusion to read, if my theories were not in large part correct.

People of course want to know how year-books work, so to speak. I don’t really know for sure, I just know that they do. The how is something we’re trying to figure out. I wrote at one point, “Three parts of space and one of time constitute the recipe of a year-book’s continuum.” It was a bit of a joke but it turned out to be fundamentally sound. Our research has shown that people who let this recipe sink in in the back of their mind as they read — three parts space, one part time — begin to experience the book as it was intended. They forget the time commitment they are making. They start feeling the shape of space around them and inside themselves, the gravity and lightness of life that they carry and they can then begin to share in the beauty of the narrative, not only of the year-book, but of who they are.

Technically, a well-written year-book interlaps as it interweaves. The narrative momentum forward is counter-sprung by references backwards in time, giving the impression of a book which is standing above time, slowly turning on its own axis, allowing the reader to comprehend enlarging, emerging patterns.

Our research has shown that a good year-book places the reader’s attention upon both who they are and their feelings about their memories. Their thoughts begin to radiate in any direction with the gentle continuity of the word-continuum they are reading. The past, present, and future of narrative reveals itself to be a reflection of the reader, as something that has always been whole and complete, and time is held still.

To end I would like to thank Geoff and Matt again and offer a personal note. During the years I have spent reading, away from society and away from nature, I have felt ecstatically alive and at peace. The idea for the year-book came to me during a time of deep grief. I had lost my older brother, who was a kind and loving mentor, and I had lost my husband, whom I still love to this day. They both went to war and then I waited, and I dreaded the bad news, which did come, in both their cases.

So years later when I thought of the year-book it was to create a different sort of absence for families to have. With a year-book we can know they are safe, and know they are healthy, and when their year away is over, they will likely feel much better for having dedicated so much time to something they believed in.

So, believe in yourselves, readers! The quiet beauty you know preserves something vital. It entices people in every language, everywhere hands have dreamt of tracing some lasting human design that might live on inside others as a tremendous source of strength.

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