Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Book as Object

In the film Hannah and Her Sisters, Barbara Hershey's character is married to an ornery older artist. In a pivotal scene, a potential buyer visits the artist's studio to view some paintings.

The dealer is nervously eager; the buyer wealthy and ready to spend. The artist takes a stab at civility as the visitors wander his studio, making inane remarks.

Finally the buyer pauses before a large canvas. "I don't know," He says. "I don't think it will match my couch."

Whereupon the artist ejects the man from his studio, sending Barbara Hershey running into the arms of Michael Caine.

The scene came to mind after reading this article.

People like Tara Riceberg are the reason I continue to identify as a Detroiter despite twenty years in California. For $500, or three hours, Tara will come to your house and make "stories" out of your stuff. That is, she'll artfully rearrange your crap, while saying things like this:

"Ms. Riceberg told another story, about running with a supermodel who lives in Fiji. The famous friend loped away, leaving Ms. Riceberg panting in the dust. “I can’t keep up with her,” Ms. Riceberg worried out loud. Another friend remarked, like a New Age fortune cookie, 'Why would you want to? It’s your journey. Do your own thing.' These phrases now appear in Ms. Riceberg’s press kit."

Tara also worries about how her thighs will appear in the photos taken to accompany the story. "Cali girl's got issues."

Have a look at the photos. I am certain you will agree when I say Tara would benefit from a hard smack.

Okay, I'm not being very nice. But this is what she says about books:

"She approved of the 'drama' of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, and itched to tighten it up. 'I love stacking and flipping books as much as anyone,' she said, 'but you’re blessed in books. We can put them all together, and all upright. We might take their covers off, too.' She stroked one without a dust jacket. 'Look how raw and interesting that is. I advise clients to read the book with the cover and then remove the jacket.' I made a note. 'Read with jacket,' it said. 'Remove after.'”

Jesus God, somebody hit this girl. Blessed in books?

Tara, darling, bookshelves are not about drama, stories, or blessings. Bookshelves serve a purpose. To hold books. For serious readers, the idea of "arranging" our books to fit some design aesthetic is idiotic. When we urgently need to know exactly what Gertude said to Ernest about his Michigan stories, we do NOT want to be bothered shoving aside artfully arranged stacks. When four people we work with have cancer and we await the biopsy results of a fifth, we want to find Raymond Carver's final poems immediately, if not sooner.

And what of removing covers to display a book's textural qualities? What if the cover happens to be nice? Tess Gallagher's latest book, Dear Ghosts, (sic), features a cover painting by Alfredo Arrequin. It is a gorgeous book, one whose cover I would remove only to frame it. The Anais Nin Diaries have lovely jackets in shades of lavender, pink, and orange.

Some of my books are missing their jackets. A young adult book called "Glenna", written by one Josephine Lawrence in 1929, handed down to my mother from a dear cousin. That same cousin's copy of Gone with the Wind, a 1937 fourth edition. Are they attractive design items? I don't know. I cannot separate my love of the stories the books tell from the love I had for this cousin, who died when I was twelve.

And what are we supposed to do with the jackets? Toss them?

Heresy! Blasphemy!

I shared the article with a colleague. She's heavily into interior design and took a class in staging, which is the art of arranging furniture and tchochkes to utmost display. She once told me spent the weekend putting her "fall things" around the house. Upon further inquiry I learned that "fall things" are vases and baskets of leaves and so forth.

I am not a "thing" person. In almost fourteen years of married life, I have purchased two decorative objects: a painting and a pottery jug. Incidentally, the painting hangs over an oak bookshelf I am especially fond of. I must admit it matches the couch, though that isn't why I bought it.

I asked my colleague about arranging books.

She told me stagers are taught to pile books artfully, interspersing them with "figurines or nice vases." That removing covers was de rigueur.

"What if you need to find a book?" I asked. "They might be hard to find if they aren't alphabetized and their jackets are gone."

She looked at me strangely. "Well, you'd find them," she said. She went on to say books cannot just be "clumped" on shelves without lining them up in order of size. it looks "wrong."

I can agree that books as objects are decorative, attractive, worthy of our visual appreciation. But there's obviously a demarcation between those who buy books, read, and reread, and those who buy books and put them on the coffee table or beneath a tchotcke intended to "embrace an ecru story."

Some of my books have their covers. Others do not. Then there are the paperbacks, which Riceberg would likely toss. My books are alphabetized, wending their way from "A" (next to the fridge) through the living room (beneath the painting), piled on the entertainment center (ugly, in need of replacement, breaking all staging rules), into our bedroom ("L" though "P") into the study, where "Q" though "Z" mingle with various reference texts, Hockeyman's engineering tomes, my English Literature anthologies, erotica, Gray's Anatomy, and The Guide to Pier Fishing in California.

I guess I'm blessed.


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