old books & newspaper scraps
Once, during a late night bookish discussion, as grave and fervent as they get at the impressionable age of 20, a friend held forth that at 40, people not only get grey hair but also start rereading their favorite authors. How awed I was by this "rereading" ….. it seemed to evoke erudite wisdom, and some sort of discerning maturity which returns to but a select few authors after a lifetime of reading.
As so often, the predicted banal facts proved more reliable than my own accompanying idealistic projections. Hence, Erudite Wisdom and Discerning Maturity have kept eluding me (so what - they’d already lost their luster in these postmodern times anyway) but the part about the grey hairs (just a few of them tho’) and especially about the rereading is quite true.
I’m alas not gifted with a comprehensive memory nor with powers of concentration that easily rise above the distractions & demands of the humdrum business of living. But still, over the years every once in a while a book, a painting, a piece of music has managed to pierce through this shell of dullness - offering an insight, a poetic intuition, some fragment of wisdom or beauty that stayed. And now, having indeed arrived at re-reading age, I love to go back to the writers and painters who have moved me, and love to amass further tokens of their world.
Amassing …. there’ s something of that in all book buying (and this mass becomes quite tangible when eg cycling uphill with the latest book-acquisitions, or when moving house). Now I’ve never been a true book-collector, nor an old-and-rare books connoisseur. (Am not enough of an object-fetishist for that I guess. And perhaps too much of a content-over-form person? )
But when chasing books out of the latest fashion-scope, one inevitably ends up in second-hand book stores where both the time-bound and the very material qualities of books become apparent, so much more so than in shopping malls stocked with piles of new books. Lately I‘ve even surprised myself with buying different editions of the same book . Mind you, am still not into the pursuit of officially famous or rare editions. But I am somehow moved by how different editions testify to the life of a book, how a book is subject to the vagaries of cultural reception and lay-out styles.
Take a book by, say, an old-school art historian like Panofsky : how tellingly different is an early 70s edition from a 2000 edition. Qua content, the main text is the same of course, but how revealing are the differences between the learned fore- (or after-) words in the respective editions– how endearingly dated they can be, thus unintentional proof of the transient quality of cultural interpretation.
And then , take the lay-out, the font, the sheer material quality of paper …. How I love for instance those 30s and 40s art books, with their B&W photo-reproductions almost resembling charcoal-drawings, their heavy paper and their black fonts in slight relief…
There’ s of course also the mere fact that a book has had successive owners, who have left their traces. The well-thumbed library books, sometimes still with their inventory -card of loans made. Or the almost pristine books where suddenly, after pages of immaculate printed text, a pencil-annotation or an underlined sentence signals the attentive presence, once, of a previous reader. (With my own filthy habit of ample underlining and marking I doubt any of my books will ever get an after-life in a second hand shop).
The book I found yesterday had everything to make my heart miss a beat. A 1934 edition of a monograph about a little known pre-impressionist Belgian painter whom I love dearly: Hippolyte Boulenger. He was a painter of landscapes and brought into this world a certain hue of stormy-weathered blue, especially irresistible in combination with his unique tone of very earthly, brownish greens. In whatever museum room – whenever my eye is drawn to a certain blue and a certain green, I know there’s no need to go and check the name.
Boulenger is not very present on the internet and the few available color-reproductions completely miss the so very material, painterly quality of his colors. Strangely enough, the black & white reproductions in this 30s book don’t disappoint me as modern reproductions do – their manifold hues of grey being so respectfully suggestive of the original color-nuances.
While contentedly leafing through the book back home, a newspaper-scrap falls out. 23 May 1943 … an announcement of a Boulenger exhibit in the Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts. On the other side of the scrap – more art news and a column with reminders of events on the same 23rd of may in history. Jeanne d’Arc sold to the English for 10.000 pound on may 23rd 1430, decease of Rockefeller on may 23rd 1937. At first I’m charmed and delighted by this authentic scrap of time. Then chilled, when I realize what year it was . 1943 …. the war in full swing, Brussels occupied by the Nazis. And in this city “whose terrible future had arrived” (1) – frivolous art columns were written, sweet landscape exhibits were organized. (2)
Just two glum footnotes
(1) Paraphrase on a line from a December 1938 poem by Auden about Brussels: “a city whose terrible future may have just arrived”.
(2) Ok, I’ll keep the morbid brooding contained to a single gloomy footnote. For one like me, who has always so sincerely revered the civilizing program of humanist education and high art – it is bitter to have to admit that this humanist tradition of high art has not ever managed to be “a barrier against barbarism”. According to the (ever so dismal) George Steiner this failure of high culture to effectively “humanize” humanity was catastrophically proven in the 20th century and is one of the reasons of the demise of high culture’s standing after WWII… “Where culture flourished, barbarism was , by definition, a nightmare from the past […] We now know that this is not so. […] We now realize that extremes of collective hysteria and savagery can coexist with a parallel conservation of the institutions, bureaucracies, and professional codes of high culture. […]Libraries, museums, theatres can prosper next to concentration camps”