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CAPPELENS FORSLAGS CONVERSATIONAL LEXICON
with a guide to editions & their variants
Cappelens Forslags Conversational Lexicon
(Cappelens Forslags konversasjonsleksikon) is an anthology in the form of a subjective encyclopedia, written by 87 mostly Scandinavian authors and artists. First published in Norway in 2014.
This is its story.
November 2014 saw the arrival of a weird and exciting new animal in the fauna of books and literature: Cappelens Forslags Conversational Lexicon. An unusual book, it felt novel and familiar at the same time. There was no title on the calfskin bound front cover, only a medical illustration showing a dissection of a human head.
In the middle of the brain burned a lone flame. The illustration was embossed in the book´s leather binding using a letterpress more than a century old. If the book itself was ancient or brand new was impossible to tell by the cover; it seemed kind of ageless. Felt great to the touch though, and smelled incredible.
Its content and its origin, however, were entirely contemporary.
At the turn of the millennium the paper encyclopedia was becoming a dinosaur. From Merriam-Webster to the Petit Larousse, they headed for extinction as the internet replaced them as the largest repositories of knowledge and insight civilisation had to offer. Online dictionaries were a click away in every industrialized country, and soon enough, in every home, then pocket.
The venerable paper versions couldn´t compete, and exist now only as snapshots of their time. In some of them, Zimbabwe will forever be Rhodesia, and no paper dictionary will explain the etymology of the selfie. So, on to the junkyard of history, to nestle among cathode ray tube televisions, bakelite telephones and asbestos dentures.
In Norway the last paper encyclopedia was published in 2003.
Then, only crickets.
Only closing for good made any kind of sense, even to a seasoned magical thinker like Smith. It felt like being trapped under a chain store pallet of bestsellers. These were also the times of the Great E-book Panic, when a nervous publishing industry was trying to pitch those things as improvements on the paper book. That wasn't gonna fly with Smith, to whom the e-book compared to the paper book the way an inflatable doll compares to the love of your life, and no goddamn compromise. The commercial foundering of the tiny book store left no patience for an attack on the paper book format itself. Something had to give.
Until 2013, when independent bookstore co-owner Pil Cappelen Smith was feeling the pressure.
The shop he'd opened in in Oslo in 2011 with childhood buddy Andreas Cappelen (no relation), Cappelens Forslag, was a thing of beauty: a space for exploration and exchange of ideas, of reflection and (perhaps oddly) punk rock, dedicated to quality over quantity and love of literature over love of profit. It was great. Little wonder then that it had never once generated enough income to pay salaries, usually adding up just short of the monthly rent. Two years in and it was getting ridiculous.
Whether rescue plan or pipe dream,when the idea formed it went something like this:
Could a defunct book type like the paper encyclopedia be repurposed for something new?
If so, could it be made so extraordinarily tactile and pleasant that it could prove by example the necessity of paper books?
Could Smith slash costs by assuming the unpaid duties of publisher, editor, AD, promoter, contributor and secretary?
Would authors, artists and readers support such a quixotic project by an unknown book nerd?
Next: how to make a paper encyclopedia relevant when everyone and their grandmother has Wikipedia on their smartphone? Maybe by reversing the rules. The traditional encyclopedias were often used to finalize a discussion with objective fact; the last word on most subjects. This would be the opposite: dictionary articles as conversation starters. Freed from the demand for factual accuracy, these texts would forego consensus in favour of subjective examination; lying to tell the truth; lighting words, people, places and concepts from new angles just to see if they couldn't mean something more or other than what they'd usually signified; to be messy, contradictory, wildly unpredictable. You know; interesting.
They would tweak history and science to suit their purpose, play with languages, base definitions on emotions rather than facts, hoodwink, make absurd claims and preposterous statements, outright fabricate; all within a formal framework that in itself asserts the veracity of its content.
This book would be at war with itself: a dictionary you could disagree with. It was gonna be great.
Cappelen Smith clearly couldn't do this alone. He needed talented writers and money, and a lot of both. A reality check at this point was a waste of focus. This called for the kind of mindless optimism that had made opening an independent bookstore in 2011 sound like such a surefire proposal.
The to-do list, then:
• Find great writers & artists willing to contribute art and donate time
• Start worrying about production costs and how to cover them (soon)
Writer Paul Auster gave a talk in Oslo that spring. He was the first writer to have a letter delivered to him, asking if he and his wife Siri Hustvedt might like to contribute to the Conversational Lexicon.
Auster left Norway, and a few weeks passed.
Then, an email:
Dear Mr. Smith,
Thank you so much for asking Siri and me to participate in your project. In an ideal world we would love to do it but we are both swamped by so many obligations at the moment that I'm afraid it won't be possible. Please forgive us and all good luck with your subjective encyclopedia.
— Best wishes, Paul Auster
A rejection letter from Paul Auster is still a letter from Paul Auster.
This thing could obviously, absolutely, totally, 100% work. Maybe scale it down a tad,
and approach people a little closer to home...
A year later Smith tallied 516 articles amounting to the fresh red excited heart of the thing. It boiled with energy, its beat irregular but strong. 215 pages written and illustrated by 87 contributors in five languages (the book is multilingual: each contribution is printed in the language it was written, i.e. Norwegian, New Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and English). While most contributors were established novelists, poets and musicians, some were outliers: One, a veteran policeman and former president of the Center for Crime Prevention in Toronto; another a film actor with Down's Syndrome; yet another a death metal musician so popular in
South America that his bands' lyrics merited the addition of Nordic studies at the university of Buenos Aires. The book's lone American writer's credits include screenplays for the movies Rio, Rio 2 and Ice Age 3, while another contributor has only ever published on Facebook. One anonymous writer details a 200 year old manual for making a pact with the devil, in an easy, cut-out-and-use form. It was a mess of diverging styles and a pandemonium of voices. Shaping up nicely, thank you.
Still no money, though.
Some examples of the book's look and content
Magical thinking had inexplicably worked this far. When applied to financing it yielded the idea of going public and simply asking strangers to pay for the book in advance, to the tune of 250 000 Norwegian crowns. That didn't seem at all insane inside the bubble that was the book store, even though the cheapest version of the book would cost 600Nkr (€74 / $101). Indeed, the three monkfish-bound copies were priced at €1 000 / $1 372 each, which is just loopy.
A crowdfunding campaign was begun in May 2014 with the goal of raising the very specific and pretty scary number of €31 199 / $43 149 to pay for printing, freight, promotion, materials and hand binding of 1000 copies of the Conversational Lexicon. As the 60-day campaign gained traction and word spread of this weird thing, it started to look like the crowd would in fact fund production of the book.
As the campaign ended the project had been over-financed to the tune of 161%, totalling pledges for a staggering €50 524 Euro/$69 877 from 450 private funders.
Its publisher was dumbstruck, exhilarated, terrified.
In any case, that´s a go.
The book binder was commissioned to produce the first edition of 1100 numbered volumes in time for the release date of November 28, 2014.
On its release, readers and book lovers were ecstatic, and full page reviews in Norway and Denmark very favorable. The series was sold out 8 days later, and the Conversational Lexicon was reprinted three times in the following year.
A short film on the binding of CFCL
Examples of variations in binding
In 2015, the Norwegian Culture Council ordered a thousand copies for distribution among the nation's libraries, and the book was nominated for a Golden Book prize by the Norwegian Publishers' Association and the Booksellers' Union. A fourth reprint is likely in 2016.
The bookstore's door remains open.
Quotes from Norwegian Media
These are some of the wise, funny and pulchritudinous creators of CFCL
Atle Sperre Hermansen
Carl Abrahamsson (S)
Christoffer E. Bruun (DK)
Caroline Kaspara Palonen
Didrik Morits Hallstrøm
Erling Dokk Holm
Espen Thoresen H-T
Geir Henning Hopland
Hans Petter Blad
Jeppe Brixvold (DK)
Josefine Klougart (DK)
Jan Roar Leikvoll
Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold
Kristina Stoltz (DK)
Lars Fredrik Beckstrøm
Lars Mørch Finborud
Mikkel Cappelen Smith
Mathilde Walter Clark (DK)
Ola Jostein Jørgensen
Ole Robert Sunde
Pil Cappelen Smith
& Siv H. Stangeland
Svein André Hofsø
Selma Lønning Aarø
Stein Rune Eriksen
Svein Tang Wa
Travis Shinn (US)
Yoni Brenner (US)
& Øyvind Kvalnes
Some definitions in translation
asphalt, 1. The surface in front of you, steaming; as the steamroller passes you realise you´re late, school must have started already. You throw your leg over the crossbar and grip the handlebars harder, stand still for a moment inhaling the smell of tarmac, then kick off and pedal around the corner, lean forward on top of the slope, and you see, in an instant, that the seventh graders are gone, there´s nobody in the school crossing, you see the the cars on the road trying to brake for you, soundlessly, like a silent movie, the wind fills your ears and you fly through the crossing, the world is open, it´s spring.
2. Reflector for the orange light observable near streetlights in the rain, for example outside the house with the doorbell you´re no longer allowed to ring yet can´t stay away from. You stand under the maple tree, listening to the children´s voices through the open window as you consider the orange, gnarled, shiny entrails of the sidewalk.
— Karine Nyborg
brothers, those who mock your father.
— Bård Torgersen
CD-s (that jump out of their shelves and destroy their covers), a phenomenon known to most.
Some CD-s simply will not sit still on a shelf or lie flat on, say, a dresser. They absolutely must leap into open space and damage themselves. An impressive urge for self-destruction. No solid explanation has ever been found for this. The main offender in my CD collection is The Very Best of the Chi-Lites. I find nothing in their music to imply such behaviour.
— Ragnar Hovland
death penalty, an excellent method to keep population numbers in check following the prohibition of mandatory sterilisation. One of the most effective population culling measures in existence, in addition to organised warfare, withholding cures for diseases like polio or diphteria and allowing the unlimited spreading of HIV/AIDS. The death penalty is tidy, practical and easy to implement. Regimes worldwide report positive experiences with this method of punishment, citing reduced bureaucracy and increased political elbow room. Nations that do not practice the death penalty are recommended by the World Health Organization to introduce it before 2025.
— Hilde Østby
Devil, the, non-existent entity who keeps proving his existence by frightening people with their evil deeds.
— Kurt Aust
feminism, (lat. femina, female) a system of ideas about what femininity is. The word originates from the contraction of the two Celtic words “Femm”, meaning “birth machine”, and “Inist”, meaning “honourless bastard who can be bribed with Oreos”.
— Odd-Magnus Williamson
god, an invisible entity, also known as Allah or Yahweh, claimed by some to be responsible for the Big Bang (see: Big Bang) and the whole cosmic shebang. The entity will be mightily annoyed with you if you eat pork, drink booze, are gay, don´t confess your sins, don´t make a pilgrimage to Mecca, masturbate, covet another man´s wife, consort with lepers and so on. The entity has nothing much on the calendar except monitoring these things closely. It is so far unknown why it would derive any pleasure from such a pursuit.
— Gert Nygårdshaug
magic wand, the, thought for the longest time that it was he who was performing the magic. It came as a shock to him that the whole thing had been staged by the so-called magician. The magic wand was hit hard by this. He wasn´t himself in the time that followed. One day the white rabbit disappeared.
— Kurt Johannessen
mummy, it´s hard to hear the lines through the bandages. It's impossible to see the facial expressions through the bandages. Mummies stick to grand gestures: rises from the grave. Lies down in the grave. One raised arm means one thousand years. Two raised arms means two thousand years.
Or: No-one can replace us.
— Sigmund Doksum
psychopath, someone who always cries in the right places at funerals.
— Kjersti A. Skomsvold
ringhole, the place on the body where the wedding ring is kept after the marriage has broken down.
— Bård Torgersen
— Travis Shinn
sarcasm, great rhetorical instrument; makes its user seem real smart.
— Ola Jostein Jørgensen
starting point, the first thing we can make a note of is that a contraction is shaped like a white circle, about the size of an orange. The innermost stripe in the white ring glows a phosphorous white. The ring then forces itself towards its own center, sucks itself in there, making the white more and more phosphorous, while the shape itself, i.e. the ring, grows smaller and smaller until the ring and the white become one and is a ring no more, only a white, shining point. This point is what is known as the starting point.
— Gunnhild Øyehaug
From newspaper Klassekampen´s weekly Book Magazine,
fall 2014 (in Norwegian)
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Editions 1-4 and their variants
Cappelens Forslags Conversational Lexicon,
Numbers 2 - 1010:
Standard calf-, baby buffalo or goatskin binding. Hard (skin glued onto a layer of board) or soft (without same), smooth or suede cover, coloured grey, tan, beige, brown, with individual nuances owing to skin thickness, the animal's life experience, the heat and/or pressure applied to the cliché at the time of embossing etc.
The first edition of Cappelens Forslags Conversational Lexicon was published in a number of variants, all hand bound, of which the main categories break down like this:
Numbers 1011 - 1013:
Monkfish hide binding.
Numbered separately in a 1-3 series
Numbers 1014 - 1100:
Author's copies. Different colophon text from the market copies.
Each copy is embossed on the front cover with the contributor's
name and the word “Med” (“With”) + author´s name, and is
as such the only one of its kind.
The one volume that deviates the most from all others (and consequently is the rarest copy in existence) is lexicon no. 666, which is unique in a number of ways. It is the only copy bearing the cover illustration embossed upside down. A cliché for the text on the spine was manufactured to be used only once: on it the letters Cappelens Forslags konversasjonsleksikon have been changed to Cappelens Forslags konversatansleksikon. Furthermore, a page in this copy contains an almost finished Devil´s palimpsest, and the ISBN number has been changed into Belfegor´s Prime, the numerological representation of the number of the beast. It has red headbands and is bound in black leather.
Possibly also contains the editor´s signature in blood on page 33, on which a standard contract with the devil is printed under the article heading “equity”.
Another one of a kind first edition copy is #1 in the series. It was the book binder´s very first finished copy, and was exhibited in the bookstore´s window when the shop was broken into and burgled in October 2014. As no footage of the burglary existed and the police were less than enthusiastic about pursuing the thief, books #2 - #1013 (every copy but the 87 author´s copies which are unique in themselves) were embossed on the title page with the text: “This book was not stolen on Friday Oct. 24, 2014”. The stolen copy is the only one without this mark, and so is very easy to spot. Hopefully it will one day be returned to the shop, no questions asked (or at least sold at a high price befitting its provenance). We´ll see.
Cappelens Forslags Conversational Lexicon,
Library edition / Third edition