The entire composition of this graphic monograph is a collection of book covers with their invented whimsical, pertinent, deadpan, and frequently hilarious titles. The titles, penned in a variety of uppercase handwritten typefaces, are displayed on diverse bold coloured images of books, sometimes with simple illustrations but most frequently unadorned. This is truly a library of words, the intriguing combination of which are repeatedly confusing, illuminating, and entertaining.

The Canadian creators, founding members of the art collective the Royal Art Lodge in Winnipeg, have been collaborating on art projects for more than fifteen years. The Royal Art Lodge has since been disbanded, but the two continue to work together with their work in many permanent collections of galleries in Canada and Europe. The two artists began gathering their book covers for this project in 2009. The structure of this unique library seems quite random, the books are not organized alphabetically, by theme, or even by colour. The reader is free to browse the collection of over two hundred titles without any directives. The library of titles can be read from cover to cover or dipped in leisurely to offer consolation, consultation, or curiosity (or all three at the same time). Numerous pages contain four or nine books while other pages focus on only one title. Some of the books are depicted as open, offering a hint to the pages within and a glimpse at both the front and back covers, while others are upright and closed. Still others rest on an unseen surface, surrounded by saturated coloured backgrounds. The simple illustration of the red book featured on the back cover, “It’s Not Going To Be What You Think. It Can’t Be Described Properly, Or Understood Easily. It’s Everything To Me. It May Be Nothing To You,” may offer a clue to the interior and intent of the book itself.

Ranging from laconic to suggestive, the idiosyncratic titles are continually thought provoking. One of my favourites is, ironically, a full page spread with an illustration of a silhouette of an androgynous profile on the cover: “You Should Consider Your Words, Because I Will Take Them Seriously”. Other favourites offer homilies and earnest advice, “You Can Only Learn The Same Thing From The Same Mistake So Many Times,” and “The Art Of Never Finishing Your.” Others suggest sarcastic opinions that resonate with this reader. “Can You Hand The Phone To Someone Interesting?,” “You Can Talk All You Like, My Ears Are On Strike,and I Have a Medical Condition That Makes it So I Don’t Have to Talk to You.” However, I must caution that my list of favourite titles did change and morph with each rereading, the time of day I was reading it, and the setting in which I found myself while reading. This is a treasure that gives again and again and again.

Complicated to explain, this library collection of words and images, offers countless possibilities to adult and young adult readers from writing assignments to book group discussions. It pays homage to both concrete art and to the power of words. Highly recommended for school and public libraries.

By Michael Dumontier, Neil Farber
Drawn & Quarterly, 2021
ISBN: 9781770464124

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Canadian

Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics

philosophyDe Heer begins her book Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics by asking questions. Specifically, questions she asked herself throughout her childhood and early adult life, such as “What is thinking?” and “What is consciousness?”.

While this is done in part to show how De Heer first became interested in philosophy, it also creates a solid foothold for the first part of the book and basic concepts like organization of information and how the brain processes and interprets sensory details. She also take the time opportunity to dig in to the differences in the thoughts of humans compared to what a computer does and to what other animals do. The way humans use logic, symbols, abstract thinking and even humor all make us, at least so fear, unique in the world and it’s this uniqueness that presses all of us to ask the big existential questions at some point in life.

The second portion of the book deals with some of the historical touchstones of philosophy. De Heer opens with the Ancient Greek thinkers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Touting them as them founders of Western philosophy, she quickly shows how their developments of concepts like logic, reason, and questioning what they see laid the cornerstones for how we think today.

From the Ancient Greeks, de Heer then moves to the philosophy of Medieval Europe. After setting the stage with a super-fast rundown on Christianity, we come to Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Separated by nearly 900 years, the two men stand as pillars of Western Philosophy and its precarious balance of the Reason and Logic of the Ancient Greeks with Christian theology and mysticism. De Heer uses them as examples to tackle challenging ideas like morality, free will, and even the existence of God.

The historical portion of the book closes out with three great thinkers from de Heer’s own country of Netherlands: Erasmus, Descartes, and Spinoza. Although each definitely has their own take, we see through each of them a continual increase in rationality while still holding a great desire to explain the great mysteries of the world.

The cartooning in the book is deceptively simple, using charming, almost characters to represent the great thinkers of History most readers — especially teens — will find cute. But de Heer also brings in a strong design sense, utilizing arrows, pathways, and more subtle directional cues that help keep the reading fast and fun. One of the shining visual moments of the book is her illustration of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” bringing a very abstract and difficult concept to life in a style that’s very readable and serves as a wonderful introduction to the complex ideas.

The historical section ends with a short quote from Spinoza — know yourself” — that works as a wonderful lead-in to the final section. Instead of exploring more contemporary philosophers de Heer dedicates the final section of the book towards exploring what philosophy means in the lives of her friends and family. From her husband Yiri’s love for the cultural criticism of comedian George Carlin to her brother Maarten pulling from writers as diverse as Aldous Huxley and J.K. Rowling for his own philosophical core, de Heer shows us how Philosophy can be an individual and very personal thing.

It’s this section, I think, that pushes this book into a slightly different direction from other primers like Van Lente and Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers. While Action Philosophers definitely provides greater depth and detail for the history of philosophy, de Heer manages to pull philosophy out of the locked towers of academia and places it directly into the hands of the reader. This doesn’t just make the material more accessible; it empowers the reader.

de Heer closes the book with a challenge to the reader asking, quite simply, “What is your Philosophy?,” almost daring the reader to figure out their own personal philosophy for themselves. And that simple challenge is more the core of philosophy than what any history-based text can ever be.

Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics
by Margreet de Heer
ISBN: 9781561636983
NBM, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: (15+)