David Byrne’s New Illustrated Book Playfully Presents A History of the World (in Dingbats)

What does David Byrne know about the his­to­ry of the world in his new book A His­to­ry of the World (in Ding­bats)? As much as he knows about psy­cho killers, burn­ing down hous­es, and “non-ratio­nal log­ic,” the sub­ject of a show at New York’s Pace Gallery this past Feb­ru­ary fea­tur­ing elab­o­rate doo­dles Byrne calls “ding­bats.” That is to say, he knows quite a lot about the his­to­ry of the world. Or maybe, it hard­ly mat­ters. “Burn­ing Down the House” is not real­ly about arson.

The new book presents us, instead of his­to­ry, with a “cross between Codex Seraphini­anus and E.E. Cum­ming’s lit­tle-known philo­soph­i­cal line draw­ings,” Maria Popo­va writes at The Mar­gin­a­lian. It is a work of the hope­ful­ness of imag­i­na­tion; a state­ment about how “non-ratio­nal log­ic” can shape real­i­ty.

“The way things were,” Byrne writes, “the way we made things, it turns out, none of it was inevitable — none of it is the way things have to be.” Popo­va calls the project an “illus­trat­ed his­to­ry of the pos­si­ble future.”

“Cre­at­ed while under quar­an­tine,” notes pub­lish­er Phaidon — the draw­ings “expand on the ding­bat, a typo­graph­ic orna­ment used to illu­mi­nate or break up blocks of text.” Byrne says he was inspired by the lit­tle illus­tra­tions in The New York­er, though he took the con­cept much fur­ther. He writes text in each themed sec­tion that echoes the anx­i­ety, con­tem­pla­tion, and strange excite­ment of life in lock­down: thoughts on what has been lost to us and on the life that might emerge in a world remade by a virus.

Byrne reminds us that his­to­ry is “a sto­ry we tell our­selves.… These sto­ries we tell our­selves about the world are not fixed.” Nor are the sto­ries we each tell our­selves about who we are as indi­vid­u­als. These are ideas the artist has explored in projects rang­ing from his first book, 1995’s Strange Rit­u­al, to his work with Lua­ka Bop, his world music label, to the album/Broadway show/feature film/pic­ture book Amer­i­can Utopia — all projects con­cerned with expand­ing the bound­aries of our shared human nar­ra­tive.

Sto­ries are lessons we send to our­selves — some remain vibrant and rel­e­vant while oth­ers are only use­ful for a moment. They serve myr­i­ad pur­pos­es that are often beyond our ken, for bet­ter or worse, and some­times both at the same time.

How can we know when it’s time to let go, to move into a his­to­ry of the future rather than the past? “Only you can find the way,” he writes, “in the city in your head.” It is our task to sift the sto­ries that serve us from those that don’t, through crit­i­cal reflec­tion, the play of the imag­i­na­tion, and mak­ing new con­nec­tions between our minds and bod­ies:

In the new world the rules have changed — or at least there is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of change.

We can be dif­fer­ent.

Order A His­to­ry of the World (in Ding­bats) here and see more of Byrne’s draw­ings at The Mar­gin­a­lian.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

David Byrne Turns His Acclaimed Musi­cal Amer­i­can Utopia into a Pic­ture Book for Grown-Ups, with Vivid Illus­tra­tions by Maira Kalman

Watch a Very Ner­vous, 23-Year-Old David Byrne and Talk­ing Heads Per­form­ing Live in NYC (1976)

David Byrne Answers the Internet’s Burn­ing Ques­tions About David Byrne

David Byrne Launch­es Rea­sons to Be Cheer­ful, an Online Mag­a­zine Fea­tur­ing Arti­cles by Byrne, Bri­an Eno & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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