On the last page of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, I offered a short note on our endpaper choice — a special treat for lovers of literature, hidden in plain sight. This is what I wrote:
“I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper,’” E.B. White wrote to his editor, the visionary Ursula Nordstrom, before insisting that the endpapers of his Charlotte’s Web be beautiful. The loveliest of books are touched by the author’s thoughtfulness and care in every detail.
A Velocity of Being borrows its endpapers from one of the most imaginative details an author ever slipped into a book.
In 1759, Laurence Sterne began composing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — a seven-volume novel that would take him a decade to complete and would revolutionize the art of storytelling. Midway through the third volume, he placed a single marbled page — a shock of swirling color, strange and beautiful against the black-and-white of the book. Sterne himself considered it the “motley emblem” of his work, imbued with meaning open to interpretation but never fully penetrable. It was a small revolution — aesthetically, because the craft of marbling, developed in the Middle East, was a curious novelty in mid-18th-century Britain; conceptually, because the fluid dynamics of the dyes make each marbling unique and irreplicable, like each reading of a book, colored by the dynamics we bring to it, the swirl of its meaning co-created by author and reader.
Years ago, when A Velocity of Being was still an untitled baby of a project, my then-partner and I had the fortune of acquiring one of the handful of surviving first editions of Tristram Shandy at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. As I marveled at this centuries-old marbled page, I knew instantly that it would make the perfect endpaper — aesthetically and symbolically, a “motley emblem” of the joy and ever-swirling meaning of literature itself.
This famed marbled page has inspired a great many homages in the quarter millennium since its creation, but none lovelier than Emblem of My Work — a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Sterne’s visionary masterpiece, presenting 170 artists with the opportunity to reimagine and reinterpret the iconic page 169. Each was sent a blank template of the page and invited to create within its bounds the emblem of his or her own work. The resulting artwork — spanning pen and ink, oil, watercolor, collage, photography, data art, and more, imaginative and unpredictable like the art of marbling itself — stands as a testament to the power of creative constraint, embodying Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”
The project was exhibited in 2011 and the pieces were sold in an auction benefiting the Laurence Stern Trust. A list of the participating artists — among them John Baldessari, Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, and Tom Gauld — was provided, but the creator of each piece was not identified, instead inviting visitors to speculate on authorship. Some, though not all, artists offered a few words about the concept and materials of their interpretation.
These are some of the pieces: