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Shelf-Conscious

December 27, 2012 | by

Chris Killip, 'The Library of Chained Books,' Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, UK, 1992.

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.

“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”

There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.

There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves. Read More »

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Design for Living

January 19, 2012 | by

If you’ve been a tourist in Russia you’ve probably visited a “house museum,” one of those great, daft halls of pedantry that strive to preserve the former homes of Russian writers and other luminaries exactly as the luftmenschen kept them. Fidelity to the writer’s own domestic arrangement is broken only by the addition of the writer’s death mask, typically hanging on a wall. So, for instance, the poet Aleksandr Blok’s white ceramic statuette of a dachshund still sits on his desk next to his inkwell. The docents who give tours of Blok’s St. Petersburg apartment emphasize his interest in the latest furniture designs and interior arrangements of the 1910s. But one has to work to see the novelty: Blok’s apartment, like Bloomsbury rooms, no longer strikes viewers as “modern” at first glance.

Not so with the Charles and Ray Eames living room, a full-scale steel-and-glass replica of which is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a part of their giant survey of California design, “California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way.” (“California Modern” is itself part of the multi-institution California art exhibition called “Pacific Standard Time”). The museum has reassembled the contents of the designer couple’s living room precisely as they kept it circa 1958, down to the arrangement of sculptures and shells and little vases of fresh flowers and piles of woolen blankets and magazines. Though its contents are old, the room somehow looks new: mid-century modern is still what we think of as modern. Read More »

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A Week in Culture: Wesley Yang, Writer

January 19, 2011 | by

DAY ONE

11:45 A.M. The excerpt of Amy Chua’s parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an exquisite embarrassment for everyone who read it. The editors at The Wall Street Journal extracted all the most inflammatory material from Chua’s odd book and successfully unleashed another one of those unedifying pseudo-controversies about upper-middle-class American mores that the press lives to generate. The children of Asian Americans took to various online forums to bewail the trauma inflicted on them by mothers like Chua, or to declare their filial gratitude toward the sacrifices made their parents on their behalf. Suddenly, the model minority and its travails had become momentarily relevant to the larger culture, through the cartoon figure that Chua inadvertently made of herself—berating her daughter and refusing her bathroom breaks until she had mastered a tricky passage on the piano. A dignified, nonhysterical account of our peculiar sufferings untethered to the American upper middle class’s Ivy League fixation and (richly justified) fear of national decline remains elusive.

12:00 P.M. The essay immediately called to mind a passage from Junichiro Tanizaki’s great novella A Portrait of Shunkin. In this passage, the narrator reminisces about the cruelty and abuse that were an unquestioned part of the pedagogic methods of a less enlightened age still within living memory.

Then there is the case of Yoshida Tamajiro of the Bunraku Theater. Once, during his apprenticeship, while he was helping his master Tamazo manipulate a puppet hero in rehearsing a climactic capture scene, he was unable to perfect a certain movement of the legs for which he was responsible. Suddenly, his angry teacher shouted “Fool!” and, snatching up a puppet sword (one with a real blade), gave him a sharp blow on the back of the head. To this day he bears the scar of it. And Tamazo himself, who struck Tamajiro, once had his head split open when his own teacher struck him with a puppet. He begged his teacher for the broken-off, splintered legs of the puppet, which were crimson with his blood, and then wrapped them in silk floss and stored them away in a plain wooden box, such as is used for the ashes of the dead. Now and then he took the legs out and paid obeisance to them, as if he were worshipping the spirit of his dead mother. “Except for that beating,” he would say with tears in his eyes, “I might have spent my whole life as a run-of-the-mill performer.”

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