The Written Image: Crystallized Books

From the March/April 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Walking around San Francisco in 2011, Oakland-based artist Alexis Arnold regularly came across boxes of discarded books and magazines. She suspected all this textual trash had something to do with the rise of digital reading on devices like the iPad, which had been unveiled by Apple the previous year, and Kindle, released by Amazon in 2007. Moved by the “vulnerability of printed media,” Arnold was struck by the idea of making art from the scrapped volumes. “I had been growing crystals on hard objects for various sculptures and installations and was interested in seeing the effect of the crystal growth on malleable objects,” she says. “Books can be manipulated in a multitude of ways and connected to what I was interested in conceptually.” Crystallizing a book turns it into a kind of sculpture, transforming it from a literary object into one that evokes “geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and memory.”

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean, crystallized by Alexis Arnold. (Credit: Alexis Arnold)

Characterized by their regularly patterned arrangement of atoms, crystals include snowflakes, amethysts, sodium, and other minerals and gems. To crystallize a book, Arnold boils water with borax, a powdered salt compound with molecules that expand in hot water. She then submerges the book in the solution, which as it cools causes the molecules to shrink and the borax to crystallize on the cover, pages, binding, and any other graspable surface. When the crystals have sufficiently grown, Arnold drains the solution and dries the tome—now sadly unreadable, but strangely beautiful. Arnold has crystallized a small library of computer manuals, science guides, phone books, encyclopedias, children’s stories, and classic and contemporary literature, including Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, pictured above. To see crystallized copies of Moby-Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other books, visit