Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bound Up in The Past: the Future Uses of Books

Here is a version of the paper delivered at the SHARP2011 conference in Brisbane last week - all about how old books are being reused as furniture. One thing I haven't tackled in this paper, but which I hope to consider in greater depth in a later piece is the question of *why* I think it's significant that much of this re-use of books involves domestic furniture rather than other artistic uses for books with which you might be familiar.

The idea for this paper was first sparked when, walking through Melbourne’s Federation Square one morning, I came across a designer’s market. Several stalls used vintage books as raw material: one simply sold old books wrapped as bundles with twine; another ingeniously used the mechanics of the bound book – it’s opening and closing – as means to construct concertina room dividers. The cloth bound books were stitched together in colour co-ordinated rows. A few stalls down I met a young woman who created small wall-mounted shelves from vintage books – the sort of thing you pop a vase on, not the sort of thing to hold your hardback first editions… We chatted about her work. She told me that she liked the idea of preserving old books. That, even though sometimes some books didn’t make very good reading they were so beautifully designed it would be terrible to see them destroyed. Because she specialized in home d├ęcor designs, she liked being able to take books from one person’s home and incorporate them into another. Her words made me think of what the anthropologist Arun Appadurai, calls “the social life” of things; in this case the social life of books – their life as objects rather than as strictly reading matter.

At the end of our chat I asked the designer if she was kept busy. “I have more orders than I can find books for!” she replied happily. “It’s funny,” she said, “people tell me they are getting rid of their books – they take up so much room and no one has the space – but they still want to make sure there are books in their home. They’re throwing out their [contemporary] books and I can’t find enough [vintage ones] to keep up with demand.”

Books have long been said to transform the home. Renaissance readers used their books as writing desks or the equivalent of filing cabinets, filling them with notes, lists and clippings – something I’ll return to later…

More recently, books have played a central role in ‘dressing up’ personal spaces. Nicholson Baker’s 1995 New Yorker essay, “Books as Furniture” offers a history of books used for display, inspired by his observation that mail order catalogues used books as props to help sell their wares. The books in these catalogues, Baker observes, are rarely on the shelf, but instead are always seductively open – caught in flagrante – pages marked with a pair of spectacles, a wrapper from a fancy biscuit...

Today, I want to pick up where Baker left off and think a bit further about reading, book display and books in use.

The central point in Baker’s essay is that books are an excellent ‘two-for-one’: they look good in and of themselves and also symbolise something far greater: plenty of time to read. But, book display, like books themselves are changing with the times. “Books” are now not only paper between covers; epub files; iPad apps; etc… but also shelves, lamps and more. In Baker’s essay books are figurative – not literal – furniture; a place to hang your ideas about your self, not your hat. That has changed.

As books get more mobile and more virtual, the celebration of the book as a design object is a way of manifesting and addressing cultural anxiety about technological change. But there’s more to it than this. This ‘celebration’ goes further than just preservation, but involves refabrication – emphasising the book as functional and instrumental. Books are objects not just for use but re-use. The recycling of old books can be read as a way of demonstrating their worth.

Here’s an illustrative comment from Jason Thompson, author of do-it-yourself guide Playing with Books: The Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing and Reimagining the Book:

We cannot hope to save all the books from the landfill – this is a Sisyphean task. But we can be inspired by the creativity of these artists, who reinterpret both lowly and lofty books into something more.”[1]

Recycling books is in keeping with our eco-conscious times. Books are, after all, environmentally costly products but Thompson’s point connects with something from Baker’s essay: that we are drawn to books because of the way they position us, not as consumers or even readers, but as saviours. Here’s Baker:

“The books now on our shelves become more ornamental and more precious – regardless of their intrinsic worth – by the charged, Lindisfarnean absence of the books that could have influenced or improved them…but can’t because they are lost. …These books happen to be the books we have now. They’ve made it… They’re survivors.”[2]

Thompson with his talk of ‘saving books’ from landfills echoes Baker here. In both cases, books need us and we need to take responsibility for them. In the present, our concerns for the conservation of books is both practical as well as historical. Landfills and Lindisfarne.

Thinking about this in the context of some of the recent changes in our culture – especially the shift from manufacturing to an information economy – it appears that the value (economic and cultural) we find in material things is also shifting. In his book, Shopcraft as Soul-Craft Matthew Crawford writes about the modern ‘examined life’ in an era shaped by digital technology. One of his most interesting contentions is that the consumer fantasy of disburdening ourselves of physical things – becoming what he calls ‘masters of our own stuff’ – is directly related to an anxiety about our own materiality, our embodied-ness in relation to the limitless, disembodied power of the devices in our lives.[3] So, for instance, we probably all know of people who have sent huge libraries of CDs or books to the op-shop. Crawford proposes that this is a mistake – we cannot aspire to be iPhones – but we needn’t reject the digital realm, we must simply acknowledge our materiality and the responsibility borne of it.

Crawford’s view is, I think, one that is growing in popularity and not just amongst those who are made anxious by the facility of network culture. In the 90s Michael Bracewell somewhat cynically called this the "cappuccino effect"; these days I think of it as “Sourdough culture": an interest in anything bespoke, handmade, artisanal, or local. As globalised, digital, networked society has taken root worldwide, interest in old skills and old technologies have resurfaced – often times mobilised by the easy networks of online culture.

The interest in recycling old books into new furniture is, to my mind, one more example of this new doctrine. A book with a tangible history of production and ownership bears weight – the history of its production – and in this sense is preferable to its digital counterpart. But, an ebook still maintains the advantages of virtuality – thus, it makes sense not to use material books for reading, but rather put them to overt instrumental uses.When the book is undergoing a reimagining at the hands of Amazon, Apple, and Sony turning bound books into handmade furniture ensures that we are “rescuing the survivors” without persisting with old habits out of pure nostalgia.

Recently the New York Times counselled readers that they could relax: “the printed book has been given a stay of execution” they said. All thanks to designers of the sort I had met in Fed Square – who were buying large quantities of vintage books and recycling them for art and design projects. My favourite is the improbably named Thatcher Wine. He creates bespoke libraries for New York’s elite. He covers books with fabric and paper to match tastes, colour swatches and themes. His is curious (and lucrative) work. Once, grand libraries made a virtue of their leather bound editions, now Thatcher Wine recovers them to make them less imposing, more consciously decorative and less nostalgic.

In the time remaining I want to make case for these experiments with books as something much more than a manifestation of the collector’s impulse – more than object fetishism of the book.

During the industrialisation of print publishing any use of books which did not involve ‘‘reading’’ was taken as a sign of unseriousness (book collecting is a great example of this). In her book devoted to theorising collection and seriality Susan Stewart describes this, noting how in modern culture the book “closed is an object, a set of surfaces. But opened, it seems revealed; its physical aspects give way to abstraction and a nexus of new temporalities.”[4] Yet, a book is not an either/or proposition.

As we familiarise ourselves with the idea of books in relation to apps and digital devices it is increasingly common to hear talk of “containers.” The purpose, in these distinctions is often to demonstrate that containers change but content is what really matters. Today, at least, my interest isn’t that contention, instead I want to draw your attention to that choice of word container.

Paper pages and cloth covers are containers, as are iPad apps or Kindles. Both physical and digital containers function to store, organise and present the multiplicity within a set of fixed surfaces. Sugar bowls contain granules, purses hold coins, USBs store files. A container is an object with a nexus of possibilities.

Talking of “books as containers” reminds us in the first instance of their potential function as household items. In his essay, “‘Furnished’ for Action: Renaissance Books as Furniture,” Jeffrey Todd Knight writes of how, during the Renaissance period when domestic space and resources were both scarce books were understood as items of furniture – they served as tables, writing desks, and containers. This habit correlated with a linguistic association between household furniture and mental stock. Individuals spoke of ‘furnishing their brain’ with the books that furnished their room and meant nothing metaphorical. Books were useful for the mind in ways other than reading. Here’s Knight:

“Like the walls, pots, tables, bed pillars, and other domestic objects whose significance was at once material and semiotic, books formed part of the physical environment that conditioned the intellectual environment of their users.” [5]

Creative experimentation with the book of the sort I’ve been discussing reminds me of this attitude. It proposes that contemplation of the book can involve more than ‘straight’ reading. The artist who decides to make a coffee table out of coffee table books delivers a witty riposte to the biases that have long existed which suggest that the only way to value a book is to stick your nose in it. Walter Benjamin suggested something similar in the Arcades Project when he proposed that domestic interiors are, unbeknownst to their inhabitants, a surface for reading and writing.[6]

My research is leading me towards the view that experiments with old books are flourishing not because of nostalgia, or because ebooks pose a threat but because the new reading technologies are encouraging us to re-cover older, more liberal attitudes towards book use we have forgotten about – particularly our definition of what counts as “reading.”

When Knight describes how Renaissance readers used their books he describes piles and stacks put to various uses, copies scattered around the room. He cautions that these habits would “look strange to modern eyes.” But, I want to conclude by suggesting that actually our modern eyes are adjusting to Renaissance habits. Incorporating books into domestic space beyond the bookshelf as items of furniture demonstrates how we as readers are seeing the expanded utility of text. The making functional of things normally considered readerly is a way of expanding what counts as reading – and it brings it closer to our expanded set of digital media reading habits. The iPad – which serves for reading, as well as recording, storing, and organizing information – seems to me to be an innovation with an inheritance from the highly instrumental Renaissance book.

Knight’s description of the domestic Renaissance interior seems far from alien when you consider that modern rooms are likely to be scattered with tools for reading, though in this case those tools are not printed books but laptops, cables, mobile phones and digital storage drives.

[1] Jason Thompson, Playing with Books: The Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing and Reimagining the Book (Quarry: Beverly, Mass.) 2010, p. 6.

[2] Nicholson Baker, “Books as Furniture” The Size of Thoughts (Vintage: New York) 1996, pp.196-7.

[3] Matthew Crawford, Shopcraft as Soul-Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, (Penguin: New York), 2010.

[4] Stewart, 37.

[5] Jeffrey Todd Knight, “‘Furnished’ for Action Renaissance Books as Furniture”, Book History 12 (2009), p. 51.

[6] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 9.

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