Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Junkie #003: "Codex Seraphinianus" by Luigi Serafini

Title: Codex Seraphinianus
Author / Artist: Luigi Serafini
Publisher: Rizzoli (for this, a later edition)
Hardcover: approximately 350 pages
Language: an invented language with an invented alphabet, generally undecipherable
ISBN: 8817013897
Dimensions: 14 inches by 9 inches, about 2 inches thick
Year of Publication: first edition 1981, this edition 2006
Price: variable
Status: out of print although there are copies of multiple editions available online

One of the very first things I did when I began earning some money from my own book Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page and the sales of the art from the book was to begin hunting down the out of print and hard to find books I had always wanted to own but never had the means to. Codex Seraphinianus was first on that list.

Originally published in Italy in 1981, Codex Seraphinianus is a lushly illustrated encyclopedia of a bizarre imaginary world. The entire thing was conceived of and created by the Italian artist and designer Luigi Serafini over a period of about 30 months in the late 1970s.

One of the many many fascinating things about the book is that it is written by hand in a bizarre and completely made-up language and alphabet. To the best of my knowledge, the text has never been deciphered, leading many to believe that the book is actually a false writing system and the "words" are essentially nonsense. Serafini himself has added some credibility to this argument by stating that he wanted this alphabet of his to convey to readers the same sense of disorientation and wonder that children feel when they see text that they cannot read or understand yet know that it contains meaning and sense.

From this well written Wikipedia article about the book, here is a rough breakdown of its arrangement and contents.

1. The first chapter describes many types of flora: strange flowers, trees that uproot themselves and migrate, etc.

2. The second chapter is devoted to the fauna of this world, depicting many animals that are surreal variations of the horse, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, birds, etc.

3. The third chapter deals with what seems to be a separate kingdom of odd bipedal creatures.

4. The fourth chapter deals with something that seems to be physics and chemistry, and is by far the most abstract and enigmatic.

5. The fifth chapter deals with bizarre machines and vehicles.

6. The sixth chapter explores the general humanities: biology, sexuality, various aboriginal peoples, and even shows examples of plant life and tools (such as pens and wrenches) grafted directly into the human body.

7. The seventh chapter is historical. It shows many people (some only vaguely human) of unknown significance, giving their times of birth and death. It also depicts many scenes of historical (and possibly religious) significance. Also included are examples of burial and funereal customs.

8. The eighth chapter depicts the history of the Codex's alien writing system.

9. The ninth chapter deals with food, dining practices, and clothing.

10. The tenth chapter describes bizarre games (including playing cards and board games) and athletic sports.

11. The eleventh chapter is devoted entirely to architecture.

But enough of that. What you really want is to actually SEE some of this book. As I mentioned above, there have been several editions of the book. The first, from 1981, is the most expensive and looks to have been two hardcover volumes in a slipcase, like this.

The edition I own, pictured at the top of this post, is a much later single volume edition. Still, it is an absolutely lovely and bizarre book. The cover is a wonderfully creamy, smooth thing, almost like some kind of thin vinyl. Stamped slightly into that vinyl is a reflective gold ink and examples of the book's imaginary alphabet.

The metallic ink detailing is repeated on the title, really the only readable words in the book.

And, the back cover. I'm not too thrilled with the plastered on back cover blurb, but it's pretty firmly adhesed and I'd rather not risk trying to peel it off. Also, since the book is five years old, I ended up having to purchase a slightly less expensive used copy from a European dealer, so you see some slight wear. Still, the book is in remarkably good shape and a beautiful object.

The art inside is especially effective because it combines elements of the familiar with something subtly alien, off-putting and surreal. The colors are often bright and brilliant like this, resembling colored pencil drawings more than anything. Here is one of many many examples of the wonderful weirdness of this compendium, some sort of catalogue of creatures having something to do with three dimensional rainbows full of holes. Serafini's made-up alphabet is on full display as well.

A close-up of that page, to give you a better idea of Serafini's art and his use of color.

More strange fauna from Serafini's world, and what I really love about the way this page and many like it are designed and laid out is that there really is the sense that there is some kind of organized system behind this all. That these entries (drawings and text) really are part of some kind of encyclopedia delineating the inhabitants of some alien world. It's all marvelously well done.

This edition is printed on absolutely wonderful paper. Thick, soft, and creamy with a lovely ribbed texture to it. You can see the quality of the paper in this close-up.

A few of the images are drawn in a landscape style, which nicely takes advantage of the height of the book.

I am rather foolishly sentimental about such touches, but when a book has a placemarker ribbon I am generally smitten. Yes, the Codex does.

In so many ways, Codex Serafinianus reminds me of Rene Laloux's phenomenal 1973 animated science fiction film Fantastic Planet, which I feel certain some of you reading this have seen. If not, here is the trailer, which should hopefully interest you enough to track it down.

A few stills from that film, which I think demonstrate some solid aesthetic and conceptual parallels between the two works.

Fantastic Planet is well worth the time and the money. Check it out. Back to Codex Serafinianus though. My edition has, in a small mylar sleeve adhesed to the inside of the back cover, a small, orange, stapled pamphlet titled Decodex. You can imagine my great joy when I saw this and hurriedly slid it out of the sleeve, hoping to have the mysteries of Serafini's bizarre writing system revealed to me...

...only to discover that the entire thing is written in Italian.

It is on lovely paper though. And in spite of the fact that Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus will probably forever remain a mystery to me, this book is still a treasure. It is not at all hard for me to take it down from the bookshelf and open it up imagining that it is some kind of alien artifact that has come to me from millions of years away. A strange kind of encyclopedia, displaced in time and space, creating more questions than it answers. I'm really pleased I was finally able to find a copy of this.

EDIT: Although in general, I deeply discourage any kind of digital piracy, in this case since the book is out of print, rare, and expensive, I will allude to the fact that for the curious, multiple blogs provide download links for a full PDF version of the entire book. Again, pursue at your own discretion but if you are curious about the contents of this amazing book, and you really should be, but simply cannot spend three figures for it this may be a satisfactory solution.


  1. That is an astonishing book. Makes me reconsider my relative indifference towards books-as-objects.

    When you were at Powell's, speaking 30 feet from the Rare Book Room, I'm hoping you got a chance to walk around in there. I might've seen better collections of old (some 500 years old) and strange books, but only in a museum, not laid out for sale should you have $10,000 in your wallet. Again, indifference reconsidered, especially this:

    It's one thing, so far as I'm concerned, to see a book signed by Woolf -- it's another to see one she made with her own hands.

  2. RF, you are always one of the most courageous and brutally honest commenters on this blog and I have a deep and abiding respect for that. I have long struggled with an unfortunate and embarrassing tendency to fetishize books entirely too much, as is evidenced by all of these "Book Junkie" posts. What troubles me about that, although I am working my way out of it, is that the fetishization can often focus entirely on the appearance of a book with absolutely no real assessment of even acknowledgement of its content. So I like your "relative indifference towards books-as-objects" as well as you subtly calling me out on that. It really is getting better, but with something like Codex Seraphinianus I still seem to be helpless.

    I, unfortunately, did not get to spend any time at all in Powell's Rare Book Room, much to my lasting disappointment. That is a huge incentive for me to return to Portland, hopefully around the publication of my Heart of Darkness and that will be my first destination. I am always in a kind of awe of those places. Even when the books are for sale (!) they still seem like museums to me. As in "Don't even think about touching." I think perhaps some of those things both, paradoxically, belong in museums and demand to be touched and read. That certainly defuses some of the book fetishization I squirm under.

    That Woolf / Hawthorne book was fascinating, but even moreso because of its history. She learned bookbinding "as a form of therapeutic recreation?" Imagine what the Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Washington State University collection must be like.

    There is something to be said for touching objects like that. Not something silly or "magical" or flakey, but those objects, they carry weight. They have meaning beyond the mundane, because of their origins.

  3. Also, I'm keeping the blog. I decided I should stop being a wimp and worrying about the discourse. So it'll keep going on for the foreseeable future, unless my life changes drastically or the technology abandons it.

  4. The remark about book fetishization was intended as a self-critique (though if it does good work for you as a callout, I'm not one to insist on the speaker's intent as the only meaning -- or I try, anyway). I think I could actually stand to fetishize books more, or at least I miss the era when they we generally considered them more precious than we do now (even for those who see it solely as a gesture of prestige, like Jay Gatsby's library, which nowadays might be a beautiful set of speakers or Apple setup). Information was not searchable, nobody knew you'd read a certain book, and any cross-pollination was much more deliberate, as opposed to the easy copy and paste of the Internet. Books are a clear and elegant solution to a lot of the questions posed by the Internet in general. I am not even sure that the Internet has solved any of books' problems: has searchability really changed anything?

    Also, I wish I were more appreciative of the appearance of books. Sometimes I am, but often enough not, and yet I still won't feel like a real writer until/unless I have one with a cover and pages. It's probably related to my feelings about publication: I am a stalwart and even passionate supporter of self-publication, but I've barely considered it myself, even though in a lot of ways it would probably be the best route for me. It's the attitudes of my adulthood vs. the attitudes of my childhood, and childhood always wins, and often enough it actually should.

    Washington State has Woolf's library? Oh, dear God. (UO, where I did my master's degree, has a wonderful archive of feminist SF writers' papers, which absolutely no one at the university actually uses. I did once.)

    I'm so glad you decided to keep on with the blog! I think it was indeed the brave choice, speaking as a person who generally makes the other one.

  5. I always admire the scope of your thinking. I tend to be entirely too solipsistic in my thinking which drastically restricts my perspective. Because of that, I doubt that I ever would have conceived of the personal library (and your use of Gatsby's library as an analogy was just about perfect) as a kind of forerunner to the information seeking habits of internet users. I think you are far far more ready for a master's degree in library and information science than you might realize.

    has searchability really changed anything?

    Now that is the big question, isn't it? We could go on, as others have, for weeks and probably never really find the answer. Are our brains changing as a result of the technology we immerse ourselves in? Is that "good" or "bad?" What does "good" or "bad" even mean in terms of technology and its uses? Have you ever read any Neil Postman?

    I am a stalwart and even passionate supporter of self-publication, but I've barely considered it myself, even though in a lot of ways it would probably be the best route for me.

    This is curious to me, especially now that self-publishing seems to have shaken off some of the stigma that grew up around it in the early days. You mentioned your childhood attitudes winning out...what is it inherent in those attitudes that make self-publishing less likely for you? And how do you feel about things like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and this new phenomenon of crowdsourcing?

    Washington State has Woolf's library? Oh, dear God. (UO, where I did my master's degree, has a wonderful archive of feminist SF writers' papers, which absolutely no one at the university actually uses. I did once.)

    I mean this in all sincerity...thank God for that. The humanities seem to be taking a beating, worse than ever before, and if the current climate at my wife's university is any barometer it may only be a matter of time before those archives disappear entirely, replaced by miltarized science departments and laboratories or business and law schools.

    I'm so glad you decided to keep on with the blog! I think it was indeed the brave choice, speaking as a person who generally makes the other one.

    Thank you. The choice was made for a variety of reasons, personal and otherwise, but your words and feelings did play a large role in that decision.

  6. This is JUST out of my price range, even for special occasions. I HAVE read a copy-- thanks, NYPL!-- & it is super great.

    My similar book-as-object coup is one of the French facsimile copies of the Voynich Manuscript. Viz:

  7. I am often embarassed at just how much I spend on books. Fortunately, my behavior has kept me just safe enough from financial ruin, but only by a hair. Publishing a book of my own and selling the art has been a boon in many many ways.

    It's funny, I see The Voynich Manuscript constantly suggested to me on other sites where I have indicated some love for the Codex. That one seems equally fascinating and is on my list of things to investigate. The edition shown in your post looks amazing. That too is a book in a coded alphabet, is it not?

    Also, that "Greed" post of yours was absolutely awesome. The sheer variety of stuff there, from the high to the low, was a delight to see. Especially the Krull boardgame. Krull is one of my wife's favorite movies ever. I had not seen it until she and I started dating, although I remember the commercials for it and had the Marvel Comics adaptations. I am going to see if I can track a copy down for her upcoming birthday.


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