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Posts Tagged ‘libraries’

Tumefied and Syphilitic, and Other News

November 16, 2015 | by


J. K. Huysmans just relaxing in front of this crucifix like it’s no big thing.

  • Houellebecq’s Submission features many an excursus on Joris-Karl Huysmans, the nineteenth-century French writer of whom Houllebecq himself has said, “I think he could’ve been a real friend to me.” What was Huysmans’s MO? His novel À rebours, which tells of “a nature-hating aesthete named Jean des Esseintes,” has an approach to desire and spiritual malady that feels strikingly on point, even in 2015: “Subtitled ‘A Novel Without a Plot,’ the narrative concerns des Esseintes’s attempts to furnish and decorate a country home where he will be able to live without ever again having to deal with the outside world … He gets turned on by locomotive engines: their steaming, sweating loins girdled in glittering copper corsets; their disheveled manes of black smoke; their horns’ muffled, impassioned cries … Huysmans’s prose isn’t just purple: it’s ultraviolet. Everything in À Rebours is tumefied and syphilitic, damasked with ennui, liver-spotted with arcane longings.”
  • In which Gay Talese slips on a pair of virtual-reality goggles, and balks: “But this doesn’t interest me in the least! … You know why? You know why? It’s the sort of stuff you see in a documentary, but there’s no insight into the situation, into the characters … It’s just a bunch of scenes … Television is driven by imagery … There will be a lead on a slow night, the networks will lead with a forest fire in Topanga California—great visual scenes—or a bombing of Baghdad. Anything that shows you color, smoke, fire, bullets, dodging gets on because it’s visual, but you don’t get anything … There has to be face to face confrontation between the writer and the subject, and the writer has to be able to cultivate something from the subject to get something approximate to the truth of the subject.”
  • What does a debate about the abridgment of Moby-Dick tell us about reading on the Internet? Oh, nothing terribly encouraging: “Countless readers have run aground on Melville’s mountain of details on the art of whaling, or have been left behind as he plunges, like his Catskill eagle, into philosophical realms, but it is precisely in these passages where his real appeal resides … It is rather quaint to locate the manifestation of our collective ruin in a British publisher of abridgments, which have been around nearly as long as novels themselves … Thanks to the oceanic expanses of the web, there is no need to condense or abridge anything anymore, at least not for want of space … This would appear to be a problem. And it is one that is likely to get worse.”
  • Today in techno prophesy: a bunch of smart interdisciplinary types got together and decreed that by the year 2100, “libraries will be both highly distributed and deeply connected, sharing a single collection as they work to meet the emerging demands of their individual communities.” As for the physical books in the libraries, they’ll probably disappear, but only a fuddy-duddy would mourn their loss. “Library isn’t etymologically related to books at all, deriving instead from a Latin word for the smooth inner bark of a tree. It was, in this sense, a thing on which one might write rather than a storehouse of what had already been written. Whatever they become … libraries will retain that original implication, always ‘spaces for creation or curiosity,’ even if they leave the books behind.”
  • Meanwhile, in a concrete bunker seventeen feet underground, the New York Public Library is preparing to store vast, high-density reserves of print: “a new retrieval system [will] ferry the volumes and other materials from their eighty-four miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts … Books will be stacked by height and tracked by bar code rather than by a subject-based system, making for some odd bookfellows … The climate-controlled repository encompasses more than 110,000 square feet … It stretches from beneath the back wall of the main building, which fronts Fifth Avenue, a full block west to Sixth Avenue, and from 42nd Street to 40th Street.”

Between Books

November 9, 2015 | by


William Strang, Münchhausen entdeckt die Bibliothek von Alexandria, 1895.

I am between books. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be. On the one hand, after finishing something good and thought provoking, you don’t necessarily want to move on too quickly—you want to digest and mourn the loss and crave the comfort of its world. You miss the characters. It would feel jarring to just open another novel and invest your mind and heart fully once again. On the other hand, after enough time, you become restive and begin to yearn for the escape, the absorption and stimulation that only a good book can bring—and you begin to wonder if you can ever feel again the pleasure and compulsion you knew only days ago. Maybe, at last, you’ve read every good book in the world. Read More »

The Journey of the Dancing Triangle Man, and Other News

November 2, 2015 | by

Minya Diez-Dührkoop, Dance costume for “Technik” (detail), 1924, black-and-white positive on silver gelatin paper.

  • Suspense, mystery, confusion, a certain contemplative je ne sais quoi … you can use ellipses for just about anything these days. Try ending your e-mails with them for a much-needed injection of professional ambiguity. And remember their roots: “Penny dreadful scribblers and yellow journalists adopted the mark wholeheartedly, entwining its brand with high melodrama, cheap commercialism, and camp … Adorno, noting the dots’ prevalence in comic books and trashy romance, argued that a ‘hack … must depend on typography to simulate … an infinitude of thoughts and associations, something [he] does not have’ … Some ellipses feel hammy and overwrought. But others allude to charged material with superlative restraint (as in Fitzgerald or Joyce). They can be gently mysterious … They convey the endless rovings of consciousness.”
  • Today in rediscovered Expressionist dance costumes: there are these, which look to have come from a very forward-thinking children’s sci-fi featurette. Two dancers from Hamburg, Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt, designed the costumes in the 1920s. “The dancers created twenty full-body costumes for performances between 1919 and 1924, all accompanied by avant-garde music, often composed by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt.” In 1924, Schulz shot Holdt and then herself, thus ensuring that their avant-garde costumes were tainted with bad memories and left in storage for many decades.
  • As the notion of the “bookless library” wends its way from cheap joke to reality, James Gleick asks: Whither the library? “The library has no future as yet another Internet node, but neither will it relax into retirement as an antiquarian warehouse. Until our digital souls depart our bodies for good and float away into the cloud, we retain part citizenship in the physical world, where we still need books, microfilm, diaries and letters, maps and manuscripts, and the experts who know how to find, organize, and share them … A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue. To treat those as quaint objects of nostalgia is the technocrats’ folly.”
  • The landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church lived in a mansion called Olana, which doubled as “a 3-D landscape artwork with more than five miles of carriage roads.” But what of its craftsmanship? A tour of Olana leaves one with more questions than answers: “We would learn that what was strange about this window, which appeared to be stained glass, was that its diamond-patterned grille was sagging at the edges; it was made of paper. ‘Church cared more about appearances than authenticity,’ we were informed. From the hall we filed into a narrow private study, where the walls were bordered with a script I thought was Arabic, but when I asked its meaning, I was told that it was nonsense Church invented, because he liked the way it looked … There was an empty easel with a palette; shelves of art supplies; a painting by the artist’s mentor, dim; a case of carved-stone artifacts collected on a trip to South America. ‘Some of those objects are authentic, others made for tourists,’ said the guide. ‘Church didn’t care.’ ”
  • Most people went to Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage to dance. Bill Bernstein went to take pictures. His work stands as a vibrant document of the disco era, which he remembers for its inclusiveness: “On a typical night of shooting, Bernstein would arrive at a club at around eleven p.m. or midnight, never drinking, just wandering the dance floor and lounge areas looking for interesting subjects. ‘I would just sort of try to keep my eyes open, and stay there until I felt like I couldn’t do any more, or I was exhausted,’ he says. ‘The speakers were gigantic and the room would vibrate. Between the room vibrating with the noise and the lighting, which was constantly flickering and moving, after about four hours, I was drained.’ ”

That Time When Beckett Made a Movie, and Other News

September 18, 2015 | by

Beckett scrutinizes a filmstrip. Image via Moving Image Archives

  • In 1965, an elderly Buster Keaton starred in film, a little experiment in cinema by one Samuel Beckett—an unlikely collaboration, but an inspired one. The movie was almost entirely silent, and shot largely in the first person; Beckett regarded it as an interesting failure. Now there’s notfilm, a documentary about film. “Beckett’s twenty-two-minute film dealt in striking ways with many aspects of motion-picture history, and more generally, the nature of spectacle, of perception, and of being perceived by self and others … the film was shot over eleven days, with the camera chase, then a five-minute scene on some stairs, followed by a seventeen-minute sequence in a room.”
  • In which Kafka gets real, very real, maybe too real, in a letter to his father: “You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you … we were so different and in our difference so dangerous to each other that if anyone had tried to calculate in advance how I, the slowly developing child, and you, the full-grown man, would behave toward one another, he could have assumed that you would simply trample me underfoot so that nothing was left of me. Well, that did not happen. Nothing alive can be calculated.”
  • Today in provisional libraries: at the Calais migrant camp, a British volunteer has set up “a book-filled haven of peace.” “The shed is filled floor-to-ceiling with books: chick lit, thrillers and a neat set of Agatha Christies line the shelves, alongside a large atlas, a few dictionaries and grammars, and the thin green spines of children’s learning-to-read books. More books spill out of boxes stacked in the corner, and pens, notepads, bags of clothes, a globe, a guitar and a game of Battleship … I am taken aback when a man who has been flicking through various novels for at least half an hour, including classics like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, settles on a thin picture book about kittens. When I ask him if he really likes cats, he shrugs, mumbles a thank you, and leaves.”
  • And while we’re on libraries, here are some items you can now check out at various centers of knowledge around the country: cake pans, snow shoes, ukuleles, American Girl dolls, mobile hot-spot devices, sewing machines. “Services like the Library of Things and the ‘Stuff-brary’ in Mesa, outside Phoenix, are part of a broad cultural shift in which libraries increasingly view themselves as hands-on creative hubs, places where people can learn new crafts and experiment with technology like 3-D printers.” Rent-A-Center must be shaking in its corporate boots.
  • Where does porcelain come from? Edmund de Waal endeavors to find its origins: “Trace the origin of any physical object, from the Mona Lisa to an iPhone, and there will be a mass of human labor and human stories lurking behind it, no matter how purely a product of the solitary artist or glossy factory it might seem to be. What is striking about porcelain, however, is that while it appears to be the acme of artistry, it is, by and large, the result of relentlessly standardized piecemeal work.”

The Citadel

September 3, 2015 | by

In his ninety-three years, Chimen Abramsky amassed a vast collection of socialist literature and Jewish history. Here, his grandson Sasha explores some of the rarities.

From the cover of The House of Twenty Thousand Books.

Much later in his life, Chimen turned his eye to cataloging his library. It was a task he stubbornly refused to finish, despite having cataloged many of the world’s most important Judaica libraries for Sotheby’s, despite having even compiled a catalog of catalogs that he would occasionally show to fellow bibliographers. “It takes the magic out of it. It becomes a thing to sell, not a real collection. Once you catalogue the book, it becomes a dead object almost,” was how the rare-books dealer Christopher Edwards, who knew Chimen decades later, interpreted this reluctance. Chimen loved being courted by would-be buyers; adored being taken out to restaurants and clubs, such as the Garrick in central London, where dealers could flatter him by talking about the importance of his collection. But when push came to shove, he did not want to admit that, apart from a few missing pieces (he bemoaned the fact that he did not have any original issues of Marx’s newspaper the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published in Cologne during the revolutionary year of 1848 and into 1849), his collection—his life’s project—was complete. Even when his insurance agent, Will Burns, repeatedly wrote him letters requesting that he provide a catalog of his library, Chimen managed to find one excuse after another. He was too busy; he was traveling; he was ill; he would do it next month. “I had hoped to do it during the summer vacation,” he informed Burns in late October 1981, “but unfortunately, as Miriam had an accident in Israel, I was unable to do so. I hope to complete it towards the end of January.” He did not, and Burns wrote him several more letters on the matter before eventually giving up. The collection remained insured only as general contents; had disaster struck and the House of Books burned to the ground, Chimen would have found, to his horror, that his inability to provide a catalog was a costly oversight.

What Chimen did do, though, was pen a series of memoranda about how he had acquired some of his rarest prizes. He wrote, for example, about how, in the early 1950s, he had managed to buy William Morris’s complete collection of the Socialist League’s journal, The Commonweal, along with the wooden box, with a rexine cover dyed blue and lined with a white feltlike material, that Morris himself had constructed to house a 1539 Bible, and in which, ultimately, he kept his copies of the revolutionary newspaper. The pages of the publication—its words printed in double columns originally on a monthly basis, then later weekly, from 1886 until 1895, and filled with the revolutionary musings of Morris, Marx’s daughter Eleanor, and other radical luminaries of the late-Victorian years—had passed from Morris to his close friend, the typographer Emery Walker; from Walker to his daughter; and from her to a poet named Norman Hidden. Chimen eventually bought it from Hidden for £50. And there they stayed, in their Bible box, high on a wooden shelf in the upstairs hallway at 5 Hillway, for more than half a century. Read More »

Staff Picks: Local News, Livid Librarians, Loving It All

July 31, 2015 | by


A still from James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

When Ingrid Sischy died last week, most obituaries remembered her primarily as the editor of Interview, which she was, for eighteen years. But I’ve always thought of her as an ex-editor of Artforum, which she ran for most of the eighties. That decade saw a profound change in what was considered art, how it would be exhibited, and how it would be discussed in, among other places, the most important art magazine of the day—and Sischy, the first woman editor of Artforum, was the right man for the job. I’m grateful to our publisher, Susannah Hunnewell, for sending me Janet Malcolm’s magnificent “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” a two-part article on Sischy and Artforum and the art world that appeared in The New Yorker in 1986. In the process of profiling Sischy, Malcolm provides generous sketches of the magazine’s earlier years as well as the concerns of Sischy’s day, including the “trial” of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and the “Primitivism” show at MoMA. Sischy’s fair-mindedness and originality as an art editor come to the fore, but so does the silliness of art-world kerfuffles and the startling differences between generations and modes of thought. Malcolm, for instance, reproduces a very pissy response by the critic Barbara Rose in which she decries Sischy’s Artforum as a “media magazine” and pits her cohorts, who were “all very impressed by Wittgenstein and by Anglo-American philosophy,” against Sontagian cultural permissiveness, in which “you could just love everything that was going on, you could be positive and optimistic and just love it all.” —Nicole Rudick

k10442One of the many perceptive essays in The Meaning of the Library (it doesn’t beg to be taken to the beach, I know) is Laura Marcus’s “The Library in Film: Order and Mystery,” which finds compelling motifs in movie scenes set in libraries. On film, it seems, our libraries are presented with curious regularity as mazes (Hitchcock’s Blackmail), haunted repositories of secrets (Ghostbusters, James Bridges’s The Paper Chase), dusty Egyptological tombs (Alain Resnais’s Toute la mémoire du monde), or utopias of knowledge (Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire). “It is striking,” Marcus writes, “how so many films have taken up these questions of order and of mystery or confusion, as well as ideas of haunting in relationship to the book and the library.” She finds intriguing outliers, too, such as 1932’s Forbidden, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s bitter small-town librarian, having endured insults from local children, says, “I wish I owned this library … I’d get an axe and smash it to a million pieces, then I’d set fire to the whole town and play a ukulele while it burned.” —Dan Piepenbring
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