Today’s visit to the Archie McPhee Library explores a book that’s much more than a book, it’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel [Buy on Amazon] by British artist Tom Phillips. This amazing altered book began its literary life as a novel entitled A Human Document, written in 1892 by English writer W. H. Mallock. Fast-forward to 1966 when Tom Phillips bought the book for threepence at a junk shop in South London. He spent the next seven years painstakingly drawing, painting and collaging over each of the book’s 367 pages. Phillips left gaps in his artwork revealing some of the novel’s original text on each page. These exposed words tell the story of a new protagonist named Bill Toge, whose name only appears when the word “together” or “altogether” appears in W. H. Mallock’s original text.
"It is a forgotten Victorian novel found by chance …I plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems, erotic incidents, and surrealist catastrophes which seemed to lurk within its wall of words. As I worked on it, I replaced the text I’d stripped away with visual images of all kinds. It began to tell and depict, among other memories, dreams, and reflections, the sad story of Bill Toge, one of love’s casualties."
That’s how A Human Document became A Humument, but this extraordinary work of art is very much a work in progress. Philips has never stopped working on his splendidly altered book. Four revised editions have been published over the years, with the most recent Fifth Edition published in 2012. Each subsequent revision contains at least 50 new pages replacing their earlier versions. Phillip’s long-term goal is to eventually rework and replace every single page from the original 1970 edition.