A thought-provoking bookshelf

Union Gallery’s off-site project offers a question of identity 

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We all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but can you judge its author? 

Union Gallery’s off-site project, Union Gallery Bookshelf Selection Project, curated by fourth-year history student Christopher Grant, asks a similar question.  

The project is visually underwhelming; a locked bookshelf just outside of Union Gallery with a few books isn’t exactly eye catching. But when I took a closer look, I was struck by what exactly this project was trying to do. 

The project is a response to the Union Gallery’s current exhibit, Reveal, in which artists explored “what influences or determines sense of self, and the socially and culturally constructed nature of identity.” Where Reveal looks at social structures in identity creation, the Union Gallery Bookshelf Selection Project aims to comment on the role of language in the formation and understanding of one’s identity through the use of book covers. 

Grant’s claim is that books can and often do express a person’s identity, but that books covers are expected “to remark on the identity of the book itself, as chosen by the designers and publishers.” Like a cool outfit or funky hairstyle, a book cover expresses the identity of the book “in a brief moment … enticing [passersby] to delve deeper into the book.” 

When you’re young, you learn that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover because the cover is just a small piece of the whole package, and this metaphor is used to teach us not to do the same thing to people. 

But the opposite argument is that a cover is a form of self-expression for authors and publishers. Grant puts it best: “These visual elements can help us self-identify, as well as identify the groups with which we associate.” 

This is true. Engineering students wear their jackets because they are engineers, and at Queen’s, we can all identify engineers because of their jackets. The same goes for Queen’s in general — have you ever seen someone wearing a Queen’s hoodie in your hometown and thought “Hey, they’re like me!?” I have.  

Grant asks a question that I’m not sure I can answer. In fact, I’m not 100 per cent sure what the question is. Identity is complicated and it can be expressed in so many ways.  

I spent hours writing this article because I struggled to determine what it was I was reviewing. 

An art review looks at the art, right? But if I spent 500 words talking about whether or not I liked the covers, I would have misunderstood the project entirely. 

The project forces you to reconsider what makes up your self identity by drawing comparisons to the books displayed. What do the covers say about the books? What do your outfits say about yourself? What is an identity and how important is it to explain it? Does it matter? Who knows? I certainly don’t. 

All I know is that with a bookshelf and sign, Grant has sent me spinning. That’s good art. 

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