Kenneth Goldsmith

In 2002, I began retyping my library. I had just finished retyping a day’s copy of the New York Times, which was later published as a 900-page book called Day, and thought that the next idea would be to simply sit down and retype my existing library. It was during the heyday of file-sharing and copying was everything. It seemed to me that things only had value if they existed in multiples; politically and socially I felt that if everyone couldn't have something, then it had no value. And beyond that, everyone had to have that thing for no money. After all, it had been six years since I started UbuWeb in 1996 with these ideas, and that seemed to work very well.

So, in 2002, I sat down and retyped Moby Dick. I ended up with a thick paper manuscript but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Questions arose: was it an artwork, or was it a work of literature? I always felt that while Day was a lousy visual artwork, it was a pretty strong literary idea. By contrast, I thought of Allen Ruppersberg’s 1974 hand-writing out on hundreds of canvases The Portrait of Dorian Gray; it was Al’s handwriting that made it a compelling visual work. By comparison, I was just making more not-very-visually-interesting stacks of paper (something that had already been thoroughly explored in the art world by Felix Gonzalez-Torres). Still, I persevered, retyping Georges Perec’s La Disparition, Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and Samuel Beckett’s Nohow On. And the pile of manuscripts began to get really thick.

It kept nagging at me that literature might be a more potent place for this than art—after all, mechanical reproduction in the art world was already a long-exhausted idea—but few had tested those ideas in poetry. So I decided to exclusively focus my efforts there, replicating and reproducing every sort of document I could get my hands on and publishing them as books, resulting in my decades-long practice of uncreative writing. I think that it was the right move: by taking second-hand ideas from the art world and putting them into literature, I was able to nudge that discourse in ways that would’ve been impossible elsewhere.

But then it ended. After I published Capital, my rewriting of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, on which I had spent ten years, I realized that I said everything I had to say on the idea of mechanical reproduction and literature. I thought that if I really wanted to, I could go on and retype the whole Internet and publish it as a book (which I sort of already did back in 2013, when I printed the entire internet in Mexico City), or reprint reams of documents (which I did when I printed Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2019). That prospect of carrying on in this manner was maudlin and well as bottomlessly existential. And, anyway, the world had changed in both predictable and unimaginable ways since I began this exploration decades earlier, rendering some of these ideas inevitable and others futile. So I walked away.

*    *    *

In 2017, a small British press called Marginalia Books (now part of reached out and asked me if I would be interested in participating in a series of books they were publishing. The idea was simple: I was given a list of books and asked to select one. The press then gorgeously typeset the book and sent me a few sets of galleys, whereupon I was to read the book and make marginal notes, which would then be printed in a new edition. I agreed, and selected Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a book I owned but never read due to its intimidating amount of complex mathematics. I figured this would be a good opportunity to finally sit down and read it, making marginal notes to help me figure out what the hell was going on with it. So I did. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. What was supposed to take a month, took a year. And by the time I was done, I had made some sort of an artists’ book out of the galleys, scribbling and drawing and overprinting all of the pages to the point of illegibility. In fact, when the book was finally published, each facing page was reprinted with Wittgenstein’s original texts so you could actually read it should you wish.

What emerged for me was the reappearance of the hand in my work. For two decades, everything had been digital and multiple; now, I was actually drawing again.

*    *    *

Cut to lockdown. Like many privileged people, I had too much time on my hands. And at those moments, my mind began to drift back to 2002; what if the “retyping my library” project had gone in another direction? What if I started it up again, from another angle? Maybe somehow the marginalia and drawing I had done in the Wittgenstein book could reinvigorate it, evolving into a hybrid project, one in which literature fused with visual art.

So I tentatively picked up a ballpoint pen, took out my 2002 manuscript of Moby Dick, and drew a portrait of Herman Melville on thick rag paper. I put them next to one another and somehow they made sense, lending a visual element to the textual part, and a textual element to the visual. I was intrigued and thought that if I found an idea I had twenty years ago still interesting, then it would be worth pursuing. I did the same for Ono, Perec, and Cage and they, too, somehow felt whole. I decided to continue—Adorno, Schwitters, Baudelaire—and I started to see that retyping my library could actually become a thing.

But I ran into a problem. My library was comprised of the limits of my taste. And if there’s anything these past few years have shown me, it’s how small the limits of my world are. So I decided that in order to reflect this, I would change the parameters from retyping my library to retyping a library. What if this library was the platonic ideal of a library, a library built on some type of objective rationalism rather than on my own limited subjective tastes? And beyond that, what might I learn from it in its new form?

Then there was the issue of exactly what to do with these artifacts—rag and onion skin paper—all of which were really fragile? I recall coming into the studio on a breezy day and finding everything scattered on the floor. So I decided that they needed to be in manuscript boxes which, when stacked atop of one another, might resemble a minimalist sculpture.

It then began to dawn on me that this was a project very much about singularity. When the internet first began I was a proponent of its utopianism; but by the time I returned to this project, the web had gone terribly wrong for obvious reasons. I felt that the pandemic was the perfect fog for me to disappear into to, abdicating social media and most things digital, finding solace and solidarity instead in paper and physically substantial, unique artifacts.

I began to think of old bookstores. There’s a beautiful shop near my house on Lexington Avenue called The Old Print Shop, stuffed with oak flat files, maps, woodcuts, letters, manuscripts, and musty old editions. One day whilst browsing there, I saw they also specialized in old autographs. Often written in faded ink, they had a gorgeous hand-drawn quality that complimented the drawings I was making. So, I decided to incorporate them into the boxes, not only because each one is so unique and gestural, but that they offer an additional layer of multiple authorship, something my work has long dealt with.

And so it went, one after another, designing labels, assembling boxes, a practice of accrual and accumulation. It’s a very slow process. As of this writing, two years into it, I only have 206 boxes finished. And 206 boxes is not a library; at best it's a shelf.

But what constitutes a library? I’ve Googled that and the answer usually is that 1,000 books makes for a solid library, which would put this project on track to be completed approximately eight years from now, when I’ll be approaching seventy.

New York City
May 2022