Unlike visual art, when it comes to books there is something unseemly about discussing form. We are taught that books are solely their content and we should not judge them by their cover. The paper may be nice, but it isn’t indicative of the quality of the writing. Or the cover photo is lovely, but the plot has gaping holes. When I was little, I loved little books. Sometimes I loved them just because they were little. I had the whole Beatrix Potter mini-book collection going on in my room. I mean who could forget the adorable Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? My favorite of all the books was Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library, which is a collection of five tiny books united in a diminutive box. The stories were fun to read and they rhymed, which made them easy to memorize, but what made me come back to them time and again was their itty-bittyness.
As an adult, I am surprised to find this sort of preciousness still effective. It seems as if I should have outgrown this sort of thing by now. Currently, I’m reading my way through (in no particular order) the 33 1/3 series. In case you haven’t had a chance to pick one of these up, they’re slim, mostly fewer than 100 pages, meditations on a single album. Their smaller than average 5×7 size is cute as pie. The 33 1/3 series is published by Continuum and started in 2003 with Warren Zanes’ treatment of the 1969 classic Dusty in Memphis, by Dusty Springfield. A few other notable recordings that undergo inspection are Aja, by Steely Dan; Swordfishtrombone, by Tom Waits; Marquee Moon, by Television. Seriously though, there are as of this writing 86 titles, so certainly there is something for everyone. Don’t expect a “making of.” These little gems are more essayistic and idiosyncratic than that. Check out Phillip Shaw’s treatment of Patty Smith’s Horses. It’s the first book of the series that I read, and it’s a delight.
Melville House is home of the novella. The novella is perhaps the most perfect of forms. Longer than a short story, shorter than a novel, the novella is best described why what it isn’t than what it is. Melville House does the novella well. I just finished reading The Death of the Author, by Gilbert Adair, a mere 150 pages. Turns out this was just the right length for this little mystery-like satire addressing the ridiculousness academia and the sometimes foolishness of theory. Any longer and I think I might have taken the literary theory too seriously. Besides contemporary novellas, they also have a line of novellas by classic authors. You’ll find short works by lots of your favorite authors: Chekov, Proust, Cather, Wharton, Tolstoy, and of course Melville.
Originally, the plan for this month’s post was to write a book review, which I started a bunch of times. Somehow, I couldn’t quite get excited about it. There is nothing wrong with the “book” I was reading, Hilton Kramer’s Abstraction and Utopia. For a while, I thought it was because I had picked the wrong text, but it turns out that what I really wanted to talk about was the unseemly subject of form. Abstraction and Utopia is published by e-publisher Now & Then, and at only 16 pages, this work seems unlikely to have been published as a stand-alone print book. In fact, this essay is actually reprint from The New Criterion. A 16-page book may seem like no bargain, but I bought it because of its brevity. It also had an abbreviated price tag. At the same time I also purchased The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression, Jerry L. Thompson. I had a four-hour plane ride ahead of me and I wanted something I could finish in one sitting. For the first time, I really understood the flexibility that e-books offer. Until that point, I considered them a way to, let’s say, carry the entirety of In Search of Lost Time around in my purse, a feat impossible in the pre-digital age. But the possibility of digital publishing allowing short works to exist on their own, as opposed to being stuffed into an anthology is extraordinarily freeing both as a reader and as a writer. Perhaps e-publishing will give small works a home, and maybe even start a renaissance of the short form.
Lastly, as a random bit of book-related information, check out this video of Seattle Public Library’s world record setting domino book chain.
GUEST POST BY HEATHER MCSHANE
I arrived late in the evening to the opening of Jason Lazarus’s The Search at Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Left were the previous climbers’ footprints on the white-painted steps of The Search, which resembles a pyramid. Wearing a skirt and heels, I hesitated to ascend the stairs, but the footprints enticed me—and thankfully—because at the top awaits a surprise, an opening down into which a ladder leads to a space where two chairs and a table sit, illuminated by a hanging lamp. The night of the opening, two people occupied this denlike interior; one of the people seemed absorbed in drawing on the pages of, I later learned, the ledger for the signatures and comments of the pair of interlocutors. I looked on briefly, feeling voyeuristic.
The same night, outside the building, a friend introduced me to Lazarus who, upon learning I am a writer, invited me to be paired with a stranger (of a different vocation) and talk with the stranger inside The Search. (This proposition was perfect for me—I love talking to strangers.) A few days later, I received the formal invitation in my inbox to participate. Near the end of the email I read:
“I’m asking you to be onto The Search.
You are invited to be in conversation with:
Name: Scott Hunter”
From googling “Scott Hunter,” knowing from his email address his affiliation with the University of Chicago, I learned he is Scott J. Hunter—notice the J—an Associate Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics there. After a few email exchanges with him to coordinate a date and time—Lazarus had instructed us to meet for up to an hour—and Hunter befriending me on Facebook, on September 30, around 5:00, I recognized Hunter (from Facebook), approached him on the sidewalk as he paid the parking meter fee, and introduced myself. He was impeccably dressed, his patterned shirt crisp, tucked in, and he smiled and talked easily. We chatted with each other and with the employees of the gallery before we were allowed entrance to The Search. Upon our arrival, it was still occupied with two other people, who were eventually politely told their hour was over, emerging happy, almost jubilant.
Then it was our turn. We climbed the stairs and each awkwardly brought shoe to ladder rung and lowered ourselves into The Search. (Me first, again in a skirt, probably the same skirt.) Inside, it felt cozy—the warm, inviting, natural-colored wood of the walls; the soft light; the comfortable chairs—and perhaps this setting helped for the ensuing conversation. However, during the conversation, I did notice Hunter occasionally shift in his chair, I caught myself sometimes fidgeting with my pen, but these movements seemed more natural than uneasy.
Although I’m inclined to reproduce the conversation as fully as possible, Lazarus did not intend for the dialogues in The Search to be recorded. I did not bring a recording device into the space, nor did I write much in my notebook (see the image below). The following snippets—from my faulty memory—are meant to give an idea of the conversation.
For example, as initial how-do-you-know-who’s go, I learned Hunter knows Lazarus through his art because Hunter is an art collector in addition to being a psychologist. A future purchase, he hopes, is a photograph taken by Lazarus of the ceiling from Sigmund Freud’s couch.
We talked about Hunter’s work as a child psychologist. Many of his patients are cancer survivors. Radiation, chemotherapy, and other procedures performed to rid the patients’ bodies of cancer can be detrimental to the patients’ learning and thought processes. I started to think about how visceral fear is, how frightening it would be to have cells in my own body attack other cells, how fear hampers learning. I told him the original word for bear in German has been lost because to utter it, was to call it and so a euphemism was used instead.
Our discussion turned to other animals, the animals in Chicago—squirrels, opossums, foxes, wolves—yes, wolves. Hunter and his old 40-pound dog—he didn’t tell me the dog’s breed—encountered a city wolf before, running along train tracks.
Despite seemingly wild jumps in topics, most talk revolved around memory, language, and attention. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was brought up often. We discussed Freud again (his psychoanalysis and idea of the uncanny). We talked about words as metaphors, active versus passive reading and writing, learning versus teaching, and attention spans and text in the digital age. Hunter remarked he felt refreshed after our conversation ended. He included as much in the ledger.
Later, upon reflection, having mentioned David Antin to Hunter, I thought more about how talking can be writing. I like how the following recording begins with Antin saying “with the search . . . ” (he’s talking about The Tempest, but listen on for a great story about a woman who lives her life poetically): David Antin
And later still, I remembered one of the first questions I asked Hunter about his own photography—whether he preferred to work by chance or to construct a setting. My experience with The Search involved both.
The show continues through Saturday, October 15.
Heather McShane is an associate editor of Dear Navigator and a regular blogger for The Lantern Daily. She worked as an editor at World Book Encyclopedia before earning an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.