The Book of Disquiet, a collection of hundreds of poems, random thoughts, and passages of prose that the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa left in disarray in a trunk, is odd no matter what it's printed on.
The passages on boredom, inspiration, and life are written from the perspective of the semi-autobiographical character Bernardo Soares, a bookkeeper in Lisbon, Portugal.
“In these random impressions, and with no desire to be other than random, I indifferently narrate my factless autobiography, my lifeless history,” reads one explanation from the text. “These are my confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it’s because I have nothing to say.” The title, The Book of Disquiet, was how Pessoa referred to it in letters he wrote to friends.
After Pessoa's death in 1935, academics sorted and ordered the papers into various editions that looked more like a traditional book, but now an independent publisher is attempting to present them in a medium that more closely mirrors the intent of the original.
Tim Hopkins, founder of Half Pint Press, is now reprinting the book on pieces of ephemera, from photographs bought on eBay to phone ledgers uncovered in old-school stationery stores. Passages run across a puzzle piece, around the edge of a playing card, and even on the flat sides of a pencil, all printed with his tabletop press in Peckham Rye, London.
“In my head, it was a box full of stuff he was trying not to throw away, and that's what I was trying to evoke,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins hasn't printed every passage from Pessoa's rambling work, but neither have traditionally bound versions. The version he consulted, by publisher Serpent's Tail and translator Margaret Jull Costa, uses about two-thirds of the total material.
Hopkins started by choosing 100 of the several hundred total passages, later whittling it down further to 60 as some simply couldn't fit on the found objects Hopkins used as his pages. Those objects include a circular paper filter for an Aeropress coffee maker, napkins from a beloved bar, and old labels from bottles of port found on holiday in the Hague. Even with the limited selection of text, the project took two years to print.
For the most part, Pessoa's phrases have no connection to the objects they're printed on. There are two exceptions. One is a photo taken by Hopkins of the street where Pessoa lived, under which reads the text: "Sometimes I think I'll never leave Rua dos Douradores. Once written down, that seems to me like eternity."
The second item he thought carefully about before printing was a strip of photographic negatives, which Hopkins bought from eBay and features what appears to be a Scottish wedding from the 1970s, based on the fashions. “It felt really unfair to put one of the miserable bits [of the book] on somebody's wedding photographs,” he said. “So I put one on that I felt somebody might say at a wedding.” It reads: “Down the steps of my dreams and my weariness, descend from your unreality, descend and be my substitute for the world.”
The rest were chosen based on which passages physically fit the object the best, be it a short phrase on a single page from a flip book or the bottom edge of a photo slide, or a longer paragraph typed across an 1867 list of the British Museum's holdings on intestinal worms. “People say, I can really see why you put that text on that format, and I'm delighted when it happens because it means they've actually engaged with it, but I made a point of not paying attention to whether the image and the text relate,” he said.
Of the formats, the pencil is a crowd favorite. Hopkins built a “cradle” out of of beer mats to hold it in place for his Adana clamshell printer, but faced another challenge with the wood grain. Because it's uneven, some sides of the pencils were softer than others. “A lot of pencils exploded in the making of that,” Hopkins said. “It was difficult to know how hard to press to get a good impression and not kill the pencil.” (On the pencil, the text is: “A glimpse of countryside over a suburban wall gives me a more intense sense of freedom than a whole journey might to another person. The point at which we stand to view something forms the apex of an inverted pyramid whose base is indeterminable.”)
After two years playing with Pessoa's text, Hopkins finds the often miserable book a bit funnier than before. “I think his mordant sense of humour comes through,” he said. “When you're living inside it for a while, some of the things he's written that elicit a grim smile are things that weren't necessarily humorous at first.”
Sifting through the pieces isn't the easiest way to read most texts, but it suits Pessoa's random scattering of thoughts
Hopkins hopes his extreme print highlights the joy of paper books, sales of which are on the rise again after the arrival of ebooks. “I don't read books in [digital] format,” Hopkins said, because he finds it hard to concentrate on the text. “I still look in secondhand bookshops as one of the pleasures of life and I'm not prepared to give that up anytime soon.”
Experimental prints aren't new: There's books with concertina pages, books designed to look like a sandwich, one printed up in a collection of individual pamphlets stored in a tin, and one etched in blocks of wood. Hopkins himself is working on a print mimicking a vinyl record that you'll have to turn in your hand to read. Others are higher-tech than Hopkins' tabletop press, with one project looking to 3D print a book in a single piece. While many such efforts come via small letterpresses such as Half Pint Press, others looking to create unique, beautiful books are finding funding via Kickstarter.
Sifting through the pieces isn't the easiest way to read most texts, but it suits Pessoa's random scattering of thoughts — and the format suits collectors, too. The 80 copies of Hopkins' edition of The Book of Disquiet are already sold out (priced at £100 or around $124, said Hopkins) or have been donated to museums and libraries, though it's on show in London until April 20.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the book was priced at £50; in fact it was £100.