How We Read Our Books

how-to-open-a-new-bookI recently came across this image online (facebook no doubt), and it got me thinking about how we interact with our books. As is obvious by posts like this and this, I am a tactile reader. I write on pages, break spines, dog-ear pages, and by the time I’m through reading a book, it looks, well, thoroughly read. In fact, it’s a pretty safe assumption to make that the more worn (or can we say loved, instead?) a book looks, the more I enjoyed reading it, or at least, the more I got from its pages. It’s quite easy to pick out my favorite volumes from my library by the amount of tape on the spine holding it together, and it’s not uncommon for me to have to repurchase new, readable versions of these titles. As I’ve written in previous posts, my copy of Huxley’s Island is a perfect example of this, as is my old ratty copy of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters… and it’s that very book that brings me to this post.

A couple of weeks back, before starting this glorious winter holiday, I stood in front of my high school AP European History class with the intent of discussing Montesquieu’s contributions to the Enlightenment via his Persian Letters. I was standing in front of the class, casually prefacing the work in question, when I pulled out my old, tattered copy. I hadn’t thought anything about the state of my book as I started leafing through it, but almost instantly my brilliant lecture was interrupted by gasps and other sounds of shock and horror. Apparently, the state of my book was enough to completely derail the day’s discussion. Montesquieu forgotten, the students instead interrogated me regarding the sad state of my old paperback – “Is that tape holding it together?” “How old is that book… like 100 years???” “How many ink colors are on that page?!?!”

I have to admit that as far as I was concerned, that particular book wasn’t even close to the need-a-new-readable-copy state yet. It was worn, sure, and some of the text was obscured by a 13 years worth of annotations (hey, each reading yields different insights!), but that’s what made that particular copy mine. The seemingly unending layers of side notes were evidence of my ever evolving dialogue with the text and with the author; the myriad folds and dog-ears were landmarks of the many pages that were lingered on, discussed, and thought about; and the nearly disintegrated spine held together by tape was tangible proof of just how many times I’d opened up that volume to join Usbek on his travels through Europe. My book, because and not in spite of all of this, was familiar, comfortable, and uniquely mine.

I collect old books, and the same holds true in regards to what I find most desirable in them. I tend not to look for pristine, mint condition books, but rather ones with evidence of being well read and loved. I admit to feeling a bit like Indiana Jones as I look for evidence of previous readers… in the notes they’ve scribbled in the margins, the slips of paper they’ve left tucked between the pages, and in the folds in the pages where they left off reading. I try to imagine what pulled them away from the book when they dog-eared the page, or what thought process led them to jot down the nearly indecipherable note between the lines of the text. The book, because of these “imperfections” becomes much more alive for me, and as I read it I feel like I am connecting not only with the text, but with the others who touched and turned those pages before me.

Clearly many disagree with me on this. When I borrow my boyfriend’s books I read them with utmost care, as he and I are poles apart on this issue. I take care not to crack the spine, nor leave a mark in the pristine pages. And I can, to some degree, understand the thoughts that give rise to the need to take such care of books… it’s a feeling born out of the same bibliophilia that lead me to annotate away. But can I admit to the little thrill that I feel as I read his otherwise perfect books and find lightly underlined passages? I linger on those lines as he must have, trying to unlock their magic and importance, the underlining and lightly scribbled notes lending a certain excitement of discovery. Those marks, no matter how few in number or how lightly and unobtrusively drawn in they are, create a roadmap that, if followed, allow me to read the book with a new and different understanding.

So although I know that many of you out there are screaming in protest of this “defiling” of books, I will go ahead and continue annotating and folding away, and let the hundreds of cracked spines on my shelves tell of all of the remarkable places that I’ve been in the pages of those volumes. And just maybe somewhere down the road, someone will pick up one of my bent and scribbled-in books, and instead of tossing it aside, read it and find little bits of magic and insight through my many marks.

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The Landscape of Books

Sometimes the sense of awe, magic, and wonder can come from looking at the ordinary in extraordinary ways. This is exactly what artist Guy Laramée does, and remarkably well.

"La Grande Bibliothèque"

My work. . . originates from the very idea that ultimate knowledge could very well be an erosion instead of an accumulation. The title of one of my pieces is “ All Ideas Look Alike”. Contemporary art seems to have forgotten that there is an exterior to the intellect. I want to examine thinking, not only “What” we think, but “That” we think.

These words are from Laramée, who, very much in keeping with this weeks unofficial theme, evokes that same sense of awe by forcing us to look at the very books that we love in a fundamentally different way. For most of us, our relationship with books is focused mostly on their content, on the written page. At times that love might extend to their covers, as books can often be as beautiful to look at as they are to read. But that’s normally as far outside of the book that we are willing to go. After all is said and done, we love our books for what they offers us; for the ideas they transmit, for all teach us, for the endless places we are taken to through their narratives. We love our books because they challenge us and force us to think and rethink. We love books because through them we can travel through time and space, we can take part in discourses that occurred centuries before we born, and we can visit places that as exotic as our imaginations allow.

Laramée, through his sculptural work, takes our relationship with books and turns it around, forcing us completely outside. After Laramée is through carving his inexplicably beautiful landscapes into the volumes, the books cease to be about what they contain, and are completely redefined for us.

So I carve landscapes out of books and I paint Romantic landscapes. Mountains of disused knowledge return to what they really are: mountains. They erode a bit more and they become hills. Then they flatten and become fields where apparently nothing is happening. Piles of obsolete encyclopedias return to that which does not need to say anything, that which simply IS. Fogs and clouds erase everything we know, everything we think we are.

Here are some images of his bibliolandscapes. Many more can be found here, on his site.

"Ryoanji"

"Grand Larousse"

"Longmen"

"Thoreau"

"Petra"

The destruction of books…

The thought of books being destroyed, discarded, or God-forbid, burned is intolerable, and it evokes feelings of repression and censorship. Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement are reporting that when Zuccotti Park was cleared last night, the books in their makeshift library (5,554 volumes!) were thrown away. Someone tweeted,

NYPD destroying american cultural history, they’re destroying the documents, the books, the artwork of an event in our nation’s history… Right now, the NYPD are throwing over 5,000 books from our library into a dumpster. Will they burn them?

Another report (from the Occupy Wall Street Library site) stated,

it was clear from the livestream and witnesses inside the park that the property was destroyed by police and DSNY workers before it was thrown in dumpsters.

Other reports have mentioned that the books have been taken by the Department of Sanitation for storage, and that they can be claimed by their owners with “proper identification.”

If those books were destroyed or thrown away it would truly be a great tragedy. Here’s to hoping that cooler heads and better sense prevailed, and that the books were saved.