"A book signing is a manifestation of an urge to recover something that we, as a culture, fear losing — namely the hand of the artist in the age of mechanical (and digital) reproduction. Now more than ever it seems that we want to get close to creativity: to hear the voice and see the skin and experience the physical presence of the person who made something that we deem to be meaningful. Is this because so much of our lives now is mediated through a screen?"
Adam Harrison Levy
Reading Levy's musings on books, prompted by his experience of getting his copy of William Klein's Contacts signed by its author, made me think about my own love for books. Although I do much of my reading online these days, I have always loved the physicality and the tactile quality of books. My books have strips of paper, anything I happen to find close at hand, stuck into them to mark some interesting passage. I always know where on the page to find a favorite quote. Picking up an old book always brings back memories of when I last read it, sometimes in some far away places. The closest I ever came to having a personal library was when I lived alone in a small studio on Mulberry Street. The first thing I did upon moving in was to ask my friend George to build long book shelves lining an entire wall. I loved being able to see all my books in a glance. I am not a snob about books. I am not too bothered about first editions when a second or third edition copy is far more economical. I like certain books for their covers, but most of the time I like them for what is contained in between the covers. The idea of buying books by the yard, as some decorators do, to fill up a room makes me slightly nauseated. Throughout history, people have always had strong opinions about what books one should have in one's library. In 17th century England, the diarist Samuel Pepys thought a gentleman should own exactly 3,000 books while at the same time in Germany, the philosopher mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz owned only books by nine writers, all from ancient Greece and Rome. On his travels, Napoleon had a field library with "40 books about religion, 40 of epics, 60 of poetry, 100 novels, 60 histories, and some historical memoirs." My tiny library was far more modest, but it was the most treasured thing I owned, and just seeing the books everyday brought to my mind vast reservoirs of stories, opinions, and knowledge over time. Luc Sante arranges his literature shelves in chronological order, "a landscape of hills and ridges and switchbacks marked off by dates, like a cartoon by Saul Steinberg, here rendered almost literal, so that I can see as well as feel the 19th century turning into the 20th, the prewar cascading into the postwar, the spines gradually becoming brighter as the present day approaches."
In 1994, I lived in Paris and spent much of my time in the apartment pictured above. It belonged to my friend Ruwen Ogien, a philosopher who taught at the Sorbonne. In this books-strewn study, Doughy (pronounced Doug-ie), as he is known by friends, writes his books on philosophy in long hand on school-lined paper, carefully cutting and pasting the pages to assemble the final manuscripts. The books are not arranged in any particular order; all had to be accessible at any moment. There was a constant stream of new books, and the threat of running out of space was never far away. It was my favorite room in all of Paris, as much for the presence of Doughy as the books.