By Caitlin Dover
Imagine you're settling into a motel room for the night; reaching into the drawer of the bedside table, your hand recognizes the solid, Naugahyde presence of a Gideon bible. But as you turn the pages, you become confused. You read, "God created sins!" followed by "Sins are made by him--to enjoy and use until they have been eventually understood." Looking further, you see pictures: a sinister clown, pink marshmallow rabbits. What is this book? The red cover lettering, in gold, bears this title: The New Sins. Strange, you think, and, turning out the light, you enter a sleep filled with charming, improbable dreams.
That experience, or something close to it, was probably enjoyed by a few visitors to Valencia, Spain, last year — at least, the ones who stayed in motels. The book was created for the Valencia Biennial by David Byrne, and designed by author and McSweeney's editor Dave Eggers. In form and content, it hovers somewhere between a satiric take on evangelical books and an actual (if tongue-in-cheek) piece of inspirational literature. Byrne has collected "odd religious books" for years, and thus felt prepared to emulate their prose style, which he describes as "snakelike, convoluted, and beautiful." When it came to finding a designer for the book, he turned to the magazine-turned-publishing house McSweeney's, as its esthetic seemed well-suited to his needs; he soon discovered that Eggers is the house designer — and that, coincidentally, he collects bibles, too.
The result of the collaboration is a volume that captures exactly the tone and look of religious literature, from the very faux leather binding to the "key words" printed in red and set (like the rest of the book) in Bauer Bodoni. "We wanted to make it look, at least a little, like crazy people could have been behind it," says Eggers, "and that font looks like what a crazy person would consider a very holy font." Byrne's photography creates a delightful incongruity between the book's visuals and text. For instance, the chapter addressing hell faces a photo of a cubicle full of empty beige chairs.
The text (which is also printed in Spanish) manages to be at once humorous and thought-provoking. "I knew that if [The New Sins] was merely a joke at the expense of little religious books it would be good for one or two laughs and then the joke would be over," says Byrne. "But if I could go beyond parody and often be sincere, I might actually say something and be pleasantly confusing."
As for the manner in which he hoped people would receive his project, he says, "I love the idea of art appearing somewhat anonymously in the world. Work perceived and discovered in the street, in out-of-the-way places, allows the reader, listener, or viewer to feel they have made the decision that the work is worthwhile and worthy. They take part in the creative process." Amen to that.