Virginia Woolf detailed the ‘rigours of composition’ in Orlando: ‘how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; … saw his book plain before him and it vanished’. These words could describe the forty-six-year existence of Tom Phillips’s idiosyncratic and ever-evolving masterpiece, A Humument. Conceived in 1966, its first edition was delivered in 1973, since when there have been three revised editions. A shiny new fifth edition has just seen the light of day, both as a physical book and as an app for iPhone and iPad.
A Humument is not so much composed (to use Woolf’s term) as de-composed and re-composed. On 5 November 1966, Phillips selected, at random, a copy of W H Mallock’s 1892 novel, A Human Document. He read it and it seemed vile – he points out Mallock’s anti-Semitism – but also