Tom Phillips says of his work “I do it, you know; you can’t really be interested in what you do” which I find to ring true. If I do it, then it’s just something people do. What on earth can be interesting in such ordinary activity?

What Tom Phillips does is obsessively edit the pages of an old book by painting over much of it and leaving a few selected words connected by little rivers, establishing a new text. Some of the pages are starkly geometric and abstract in their treatment, and others, like page 50, illustrated above, are impressively realistic. He’s been at it for 50 years, so he clearly enjoys it, and in one way that is enough. Obviously others want to enjoy it too, and Thames & Hudson has just come out with a sixth recension.

As his website puts itA Humument has been a work in progress since 1966 when Tom Phillips set himself a task: to find a second-hand book for threepence and alter every page by painting, collage and cut-up techniques to create an entirely new version. He found his threepenny novel in a junk shop on Peckham Rye, South London. This was an 1892 Victorian obscurity titled A Human Document by W.H. Mallock whose title was altered to A Humument [by folding the title page to exclude the letters in the middle] for the remade book. The earliest printed version took the form of sets of boxed pages issued by the Tetrad Press between 1971 and 1976. The first trade edition was published by Thames & Hudson in association with Hansjorg Mayer in 1980 and this was followed by revised editions in 1987, 1998, 2004 and 2012 before the sixth and final edition was published in 2016. Each edition contains at least 50 new pages which replace their earlier selves in a process whose goal is acheived in the final edition in which no page of the earliest version survives.”

I can see it would be fun to do, but I’m not sure that the resulting text has much to say to us really. It’s art, no doubt, but it mostly comes across to me as a bit obsessive — but I guess that’s art, isn’t it? Mr Phillips’ website includes a 2½ hour reading of the sixth version of the work. There’s also a generous selection of page images there too — I think it may be the complete book.

Jonathan Safran Foer has done an analogous, if non-graphic, job on Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. His version is called Tree of Codes and is printed as originally laid out with the excised words die-cut away (or omitted) so that you end up reading a layered text which must have been a nightmare to print and die-cut, as well as “write”. The publisher’s website shows some other sample pages, though this picture tells the story pretty well. They also have a brief video showing the printing and die-cutting process. No wonder the book is currently out of stock: it’s not an item you can reprint on demand. The book was perfect bound: trying to fold and gather die-cut sheets like that would have been almost impossible.

The Times Literary Supplement of 31 March reviews the latest iteration of A Humument. You’ll need a subscription to read more than the first few lines though. One reflection that strikes me is whether these books are “written” by Phillips and Foer, or by Mallock and Schultz? If I cut up The Heart of Darkness into single words and drop them at random around the streets of New York, is a text resulting from your happening along later and picking up a number of bits of paper a text by you, me, Joseph Conrad, the west wind, or nobody?