Brave New Rationalist Bookshop – Art To Celebrate Embiggen Books’ Grand (Re)Opening

Dear C,

Remember that little local artist’s painting I sent you back in 2007? The one that’s small enough to use as a coffee-mat, that I got from one of several folders that were full of plastic sleeves and original sketches and paintings? Assorted art that the artist didn’t seem to want hanging around? 

Remember how I told you that the artist won a freaking Oscar this year?

PLEASE put yours in a frame now…


Yes, the picture is one of many that feature in the windows of Embiggen Books – all titles from supporters on Twitter who sent in book titles on the theme #BookShopsAreDead!

Yesterday I posted a present to a friend, whose rationalist bookstore got flooded. Their bookstore is having their grand-re-opening (as they only opened in August!) on Friday, October 7th. If you’re in the Melbourne area, consider going in to visit and support them at the QV Building, 97-203, Little Lonsdale St.- Facebook RSVP here.

Try to imagine the damage that water can do to books, if you haven’t experienced it before. The pages swell up, making the spines stretch out, sometimes the glue holding the pages dissolves and they buckle and warp. Pages stain and tear or stick together permanently. The water fills the book which then soaks through to other books and the bookshelf itself stains and becomes waterlogged. We’ve even lost a university library in Perth, the one that I spent days writing my thesis in, to a flood.

This is what happened to the rationalist bookstore, Embiggen Books. But in their case – adding to the horror of the disaster – it was burst pipes from the apartments upstairs, flooding the store with sewage. I would suggest that you don’t imagine what that was like.

So, I can’t make it to the grand reopening. However, with the flooding, they lost not only books but art that featured in the shop too. Therefore, I’ve sent some art as a present, to help rebuild the once-stunning aesthetic element, as well as supporting their scientific emphasis in the store. But what kind of art do you buy for a rationalist bookshop?

I decided to visit my great friends at the Fremantle Childrens’ Literature Centre, in order to buy some picture-book art. Because, to me, picture books are a classic example of how art and science can work wonderfully together, to not only please the eye but challenge the brain.

Shaun Tan, Perth artist (and Oscar winner for the film of The Lost Thing, narrated by another West Australian, Tim Minchin, of ‘Storm’ fame), is the creator of not only beautiful but bogglingly-wonderful works like The Rabbits and The Arrival. These books are taught across the ages in English classes, along with graphic novels, to interrogate the meanings created and learn about visual literacy.

There’s a number of young people I know who have used Tan’s The Arrival to not only create their own stories but be inspired to become artists themselves. Even more interestingly, The Red Tree has been used in discussing the impact of depression and I learned at the Fremantle Childrens’ Literature Centre of lectures given by both the director Lesley Reese and Tan to a psychology conference on depression. Here in this photo, you can see some of the original works on display at the centre.

Of course, Tan is only one of many artists who use picture books to convey timely and challenging issues and ideas that engage and empower minds of all ages. In Australia, we also have Graeme Base, who has created excellent puzzle-picture books like ‘The Eleventh Hour‘ and ‘Enigma; his work is quite stunning in both complexity and design. It’s these kinds of books that got me into collecting picture book art in the first place. Some readers might even have read The Merlin Mystery, a 1998 picture book (also known as a ‘Armchair treasure hunt book‘) written by Jonathan Gunson and illustrated by Gunson and Marten Coombe – that one was never solved and the prize went to a charity.

While the term ‘enimgatologist‘ is more often associated with crossword-puzzle creators Will Shortz or Merl Reagle (both feature in one of my favorite documentaries, Wordplay), I would say that it can equally apply to another ‘armchair treasure hunt book’ artist, Kit Williams:

It made for an unlikely national obsession: an 18-carat gold, jewel-encrusted hare buried somewhere in Britain, and the fiendishly complicated clues to its secret location contained in a lavishly illustrated children’s story.

I first learned of Williams from a child in the early 1990s; they had a copy of The Book Without A Name (sometimes known as The Bee Book), where the puzzle within required solving in order to learn its title. But it was Masquerade and the story behind the buried treasure of a golden hare that led me to track down his other works. He was, by the way, reunited with the ‘lost’ hare in 1999.

(By the way: If you really, REALLY want to know the title of ‘The Book Without A Name’, you can find it here.)


So, what did I choose for Embiggen Books? Well, I couldn’t get a golden hare for them, but I think I chose something both suitable and interesting to suit their decor! I’m hoping I’ll have an opportunity to visit the store in April 2012, during the Global Atheist convention and check out the bookstore at its best. If you’re in Melbourne around Friday, October 7th, do head over to Embiggen Books and support their re-opening in person for me!

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