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IF YOU'RE SMART, you won't hand a book to Wayne Chubin, Jody Plant or Paul Heath and say, "What do you make of this?"

They'll probably make something to boggle your mind."Uses of a Book," the current exhibit at the Salt Lake City Public Library, features those artists and others in a display of books as art. Yes, most of the pieces are readable and have the trappings of books. But no, if you're looking to curl up with a good book, don't look here.

These are books as springboards - books as "occasions" for visual fireworks.

"There has been a lot of interest in this exhibit," says Heidi Ferguson, director of the Atrium Gallery. "Bookmaking seems to be something that a lot of people feel compelled to try. I suppose it's because books are so much a part of daily life."

The exhibit stresses the "uses" of books as tactile objects, beautiful objects, historical objects and found objects. Examples range from the exquisite fine press editions of literary works produced by the Red Butte Press at the University of Utah to the odd and eerie "book boxes" of Sue Cotter with their totem appearance and even a scrolling tongue.

And though the whole enterprise sounds pretty avant-garde, the truth is turning books into art objects has been a passion with people for centuries. Even Johann Gutenberg's first printing press turned out an "artsy" Bible.

"Gutenberg was trying to replicate the beautiful, illuminated medieval manuscripts done by monks," says Madelyn Garrett, rare book curator for the U. and a "book artist" herself. "So books, from the very beginning, were an artform. Before the printing press, books were produced by hand for the very rich and elite, so they would have wonderful paintings in them and bindings covered in velvet and precious stones."

Artful books came on the scene in Egypt in 2700 B.C. with the first papyrus scrolls. With the advent of parchment - which is made from animal skins - the pages became more resilient and the artists could do more with them.

The oldest printed book is "The Diamond Sutra" (868 A.D.), though most people who love the look of books say "The Book of Kells" - produced in Kells, Ireland, by monks a millennium ago - is the finest example of bookmaking in the history of the planet.

The University of Utah is one of a handful of institutions that have a facsimile of "The Book of Kells."

"The original `Book of Kells' was under too much stress, so they've had to lock it away," says Garrett. "But the facsimile is amazing in itself. The book was the epitome of manuscript books. It is perhaps the greatest example of design and illustration."

Needless to say, the world will likely never produce another "Book of Kells"; but the display at the city library shows that modern artists have much of the same wonder and awe for language that fine artists have felt for centuries.

Linda Nowlin, a local poet and visual artist, was especially pleased for a chance to work with both.

"The idea of working with both words and images plays right into my passions and interests," she says. "Many artists feel that words get in the way. That the images should be enough, and if the words are needed that means something is lacking in the images. I don't feel that way. I'm instinctually drawn to both. One doesn't supercede the other in my mind."

"People get into doing books as art for many reasons," says Garrett. "If you love literary things, you undoubtedly love holding books. Books are intimate communication. And books as art make you appreciate the words coming at you in many different ways."

In the current exhibit at the Salt Lake City Library, the words not only come at you in different ways, they seem to come at you from everywhere at once.