To those of you who missed the Dec. 31st New York Times Op Ed page I recommend the rich writing and thinking that went into that page. Every piece, David Brooks’ “The Sydney Awards, Part 2“, Frank Bruni’s “Tweet Less, Read More” (not per se about reading more) or Jennifer Finney Boylan’s thoughts on a missing friend like the longing for a gender you weren’t born with, each is a homily on la Condition humaine moderne. Of course, the internet being more self-referential than Chris Christie, Bruni’s thought came from Matt Labash in the Weekly Standard in an article called ”Twidiocracy” (this is the only time you’ll see me quoting a conservative positively). The Labash article had its faults, but it included this passage about Twitter but apropos to social media in general:
[Twitter is] the constant mirror in front of your face. The only problem is that it’s not just you and the mirror. You’re waiting for the mirror to tell you what it thinks.
I guess what’s social media in a nutshell. It’s so faceless while posing as someone so close. The “mirror” is familiarly anonymous. It’s creepy because it’s a living oxymoron. I’m not against Twitter any more than I would be against picking a scab: it won’t likely scar you unless you do it over and over again. I keep looking at people staring at their cell phones–in busses, in restaurants, at church–and wonder if they’re finding any enlightenment in that thing? Of course, I’m a cell-phone starer, too. That’s what gives me the right to question it.
Brooks ends with Labash’s twitter from @GSElevator: “If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying. … Because if you’re good at lying, you’re good at everything.”
Happy New Year
Lou Reed’s death on Sunday wasn’t a shock. The fact that someone like him lived that long was more of a surprise. The NYT obituary had so many wonderful observations, “Reed starting singing outside the song’s melody as if he were giving a speech with a fluctuating drone in a New York accent. . . . He played lead guitar in the same way, straining against his limitations.” We all strain against our limitations, LR made it seem meaningful.
The album that sticks with me the most is the John Cale/Lou Reed collaboration, New York. Not his most famous album. On it, Reed sings of the Halloween parade in the Village where the gays and drag queens dress so outlandishly on “their day” and the sadness of successive Halloween parades where the participants would be gone through AIDS deaths. The costumes–like the lives of their wearers–in various levels of camp–formed a microcosm of all life where the good times and the great friends slip away. “See you next year!” Reed ends the tune, a more hopeful than prophetic closing. See you next year, Lou.
While purchasing old copies of Baedeker’s guides for Duke Libraries, I ran across this book dealer vignette on Baedeker’s Guides:
Literary references to Baedeker’s abound, from E. M. Forester’s A Room with a View to Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. T.E. Lawrence is reputed to have used Baedeker’s guide to Palestine during his Doctoral work in the Levant and prompted his Allied superiors to make facsimile copies during WWI. During the Luftwaffe’s Vergeltungsangriffe the guides were important enough to be reportedly cited by Gustav Braun von Stumm. “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” In the so-called “Baedeker Blitz” of 1942 the English cities of Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York, and Canterbury were bombed.
There is no truth that cannot lead to perversion.
One of the perennial one-ups-manships games in academics is to intimidate your friends with all the great books in your discipline that you’ve read. Luckily, there never was much consensus in art history. Or rather there were too many censensae (that’s the nice thing about standards, there’s so many to choose from). Most graduate students in art history are given reading lists supplied by their departments or advisers, but these varied from school to school. It was hard to play this game–and win definitively–in art history.
Until 2010, when Paul von Naredi-Rainer together with Johann Konrad Eberlein and Goetz Pochat picked 169 books that were ‘Hauptwerke’–the major texts–of art history and published them in a guide. More amazing than the fact that any academic would write this is that they found a publisher of “pocket guides” (Taschenausgaben) to issue it. I love art history but somehow the 169 greats of the discipline is not pocket literature to me.
But never mind. Just test yourself, like one of those are-you-a-real-man questionnaires in Guns ‘N Ammo magazine. Are yrou a REAL art historian? How many of these books have you read . . .
James Ackerman: The Architecture of Michelangelo
Jean Adhemar: Influences Antique dans l’art du Moyen Age francais
Svetlana Alpers: Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market.
Carlo Argan: Storia dell’arte italiana
Carlo Argan: L’Arte moderna
Marcel Aubert: L’architecture cistercienne en France
Kurt Badt: Eine Wissenschaftslehre der Kunstgeschichte
Hauptwerke der Kunstgeschichtsschreibung. Stuttgart: Kroener, 2010. Lilly Library NX 175.H387 2010 (checked out!)
The rebirthed Barnes Foundation, now in Philadelphia, has issued a catalog on its holdings on Renoir, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation (2012). Barnes owned 181 Renoirs by the time of his death in 1951, mostly from the artist’s later years. This is problematic for curators because the last twenty years of Renoir’s life he settled into painting almost exclusively fantasy naked women. Renoir, bent over, in a wheelchair, hands crippled with arthritis, devoted his final years to producing thinly veiled porn. If you dig your women on the plumper side, Renoir’s output from 1909-1919 is the acme. Art history, for the last sixty years, has taken a really dim view of this production and understandably so. Want to create an awkward silence at soiree of art types? Just say you find Renoir’s late work important. Even praising Normal Rockwell wouldn’t get you the horrified stares that a statement like that would. The curators of the Barnes catalog were at a loss to explain why the collector–not generally disposed to modern art that was titillating–bought nearly exclusively from this period. The feminist view that this output is women-as-object (something Renoir himself unfortunately admitted); the Progressivist approach is that art historians bemoaning that there’s no “finish line” in Renoir’s late work–it doesn’t lead to anything in art history; the New Art History types (rather older now) observe that these works don’t deconstruct very well. Like, not at all.
But there was some hope, it turns out we may not have to hate Renoir after all. At one point, the Barnes’ curator, Martha Lucy, makes a startling observation: all the criticism agreed with, couldn’t Renoir’s late work be viewed as making the woman the canvas? Those large nudes taking up most of the picture plane and doing inane things, maybe Renoir’s fantasy isn’t so much an old man leering but a reversal of art and life. The model in the studio becomes the art–not on the canvas, but of the canvas.
Post script: the catalog describes one of Renoir’s favorite models as having been found by Matisse on a streetcar. The Fauve master spied a zaftig redhead on the tram and told her she would be perfect as a model for Renoir. Now, if I hadn’t read this in an art history book, I’d have thought this bogus! Of all the lame come-on lines. But it worked (“I’m not the artist, but I’m a friend of his and I think you’d look great naked . . . ). The woman, Claire Heusling, did become Renoir’s model and, after doing the nude stint, ended up marrying the artist’s son, the famous director Jean Renoir.
Only in art history.
Ray Bradbury’s obit int he NYT was illuminating. I’m not a sci-fi type (many would argue neither was Bradbury), but what caught my eye was his pronouncement that he didn’t graduate from college–instead he graduated from libraries. Bradbury isn’t the first person to miss a college education only to educate himself through personal reading, Patti Smith (who handily worked at Brentano’s in New York) was another who immediately springs to mind. In most of these cases, these self-educated personalities disparage formal education for the growth of personal reading. The famous 19th-century connoisseur Giovanni Morelli, http://www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org/morellig.htm, was fond of going out of his way to dis academics who studied the history of objects at the cost of actually looking at them. But all this backlash at the academy is really misplaced.
One of the goals of education–formal education–is to encourage a pattern of personal education as well. The criticisms against college–usually voiced by those far from the university–that they are ‘ivory towers’ and you don’t know anything until you get in the real world perpetrates this odd dichotomy of school education vs experiential. Reading is the great leveler–something that doesn’t seem to be as emphasized as much in college as it used to [turn on old fogy filter now]. In twenty years as a librarian I’ve been amazed to see how reading lists–both electronic and hard copy–have shrunk. And you can forget assigning a foreign-language text to an undergraduate, even though all Duke students are required to pass three semesters of a foreign language.
The problem with reading going out of vogue is that I think self-education is going out as well. Where or how the next gen of Bradburys will educate themselves is not clear. Only that they’ll likely have to graduate from somewhere other than libraries.
Those of you who were forced to read good books in high school or college may recognize this phrase from the beginning proto-chapter of Moby Dick . . . even before the famous “Call me Ishmael” bit. Melville sought to educate his reader on the topic of whaling and so began his book with a section called “Extracts: (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian)”. I had forgotten that MB begins this way until I returned to it last summer and found the section. The author calls himself this sub-sub librarian which must be the equivalent to the HR grade Library Assistant I, because to be a librarian in mid-nineteenth-century New England meant being part of a profession that you couldn’t just call yourself without knowing how to do some special stuff. That was before the internet usurped the term ‘Library’ to mean the collection of stuff dumped in a database.
What really fascinates me about this section is that it’s snippets. Quotations. Junk Melville found in different places that he assumed would be helpful to his reader.
“The sovereignest thing on earth is parmacetti for an inward bruise. — King Henry”.
Actually, I’d like a bumper sticker that says that. Melville’s Sub-Sub-Library is in fact a paradigm of a bricks-and-mortar library (and its virtual counterpart). A collection of things arranged in a way that could potentially make sense to a particular user, but we’re not going to promise. We’re not going to force your hand on this. The Extracts quotes other sources like Sibbald’s Fife and Kinross and Schouten’s Sixth Circumnavigation. Whew! Am I glad time marches on.
Is there a way of retaining what libraries are so that they can both appeal to the sub-sub types AND accommodate the modern, Caliban-ish quest for sherds on the ground that pass for knowledge? I don’t know. All I know is that the free internet isn’t quite ready to replace formal collections of disparate texts known as the library.
Post script. I assume that the coffee chain company Starbucks with its mermaid logo is derived from MD as well (Starbuck being the one sane person on the Pequod), probably because he was hyped up on caffeine.
This year marks forty years since Elizabeth Katz and Celeste West published their edited book, Revolting Librarians. Serious humor in the 1970s style. A vision of information facilitators as impish, dedicated subversives, hurling books quietly. A thorn in the side of the very academies and municipalities that funded them. Not even the ALA (American Library Association) would publish it, it was that good.
Periodically, I return to it for inspiration and sometimes solace. The subject heading they self-assigned to their book was “Meatballs–creeping.” Essays included how #*%$ boring library school was and how no one ever, as a child, imagines him/herself to grow up to be a librarian. They focused on the angst of this discipline as the reason it was so successful. For those of us who remember 1972 (I was a high school junior), it was full of promise. Paul Krugman wrote that growing up in that time period it was not clear that America would ever be anything else than progressive, diverse, optimistic and liberal.
It’s the most inobvious lessons that teach the best. RL‘s wonderful double entendre title says it all. We do our job as librarians best when we push people away from us. We deliver databases directly to our users. We buy as much full-text online as we can, and rightfully so. This is what users want and librarians have little other purpose than to facilitate what users’ needs. Except that anyone who’s done this job any length at all knows there’s frustration with the sources but now, with an electronic presence, we have no idea who’s frustrated and over what.
Not that librarians are alone. An art museum curator confided to me that museums are in competition with electronic images of their own art. ”If we want people to witness original art, the museum sure as hell can’t charge for it,” she exclaimed. André Malraux’s famous first chapter of Les Voix du Silence (Voices of Silence), “the Museum without Walls” [in French it was literally "the imaginary museum"] declares that things can’t be about themselves if we want people to relate to them. Revolting Librarians places itself somewhere in the middle of all this. The difference between a book collection (or a database collection) and a library is people. The people are still there, but as we’re ever more removed from the public eye, we risk our authority as revoltable. As being able to stand our ground for the principles of access, innovation and self discovery of an individual’s uniqueness.