Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his fifteen year old son growing into a black man in America. This letter, is 152 pages long. Because this work feels precisely like a letter, it results almost in guilt while reading it because you feel all the love and pain and anguish and anger that Coates experiences and expresses to his son. These are emotions that aren’t generally shared when writing about American history.* Books about history can induce anger, frustration, and guilt, but those are experienced by the reader, and not outright expressed by the writer. Why? Because we were told that history is what actually existed. We do not learn until later that history alters by who is telling the history, who is the writer, the “academic.” And so these “history” books we read growing up, are very one-sided, and of course, emotions are removed, falsely assuming objectivity. But how are they objective when they are only telling one version?
Years ago the Huntington Library hosted an exhibition about Bukowski. I flew to Los Angeles, as a friend promised to take me. Fast forward to that Saturday night, 2am, and drinks are still flowing. Then to 4am, when we get back to her place. Around 4:30, I fall asleep, and I know, there will be no Bukowski exhibit for me. I wake up, early, anxious, excited, hopeful even though I know how the day will play out. My friend and her boyfriend, late risers, a late brunch, joined by her friends that I don’t know. And no Bukowski for me.
This last week, I was visiting another friend in Glendale, California. She is another fellow bibliophile, also with her MA in English Literature. We had only two and a half hours to explore the Library, the American Art Collection, the European Art Collection, the Japanese gardens, the Chinese gardens, the desert gardens, and the rose gardens. We ended up spending the bulk of our time in front of famous books. Those books that you read about, the ones that are always featured in crime thrillers, where the shady book dealer brokers a deal with the devil to get the crooked rich buyer a folio that no one’s ever heard of because it’s the only one in existence because no one will allow it to be mass produced.
Sada and I stared in awe. We quietly shouted to one another, hitting one another, gesturing, exclaiming, “LOOK, LOOK at THIS!!! It is here, it is AMAZING!!!” Over and over. We gestured, whispered, and exclaimed.
There was a First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, printed 7 years after his death. This is the primary source for his text. When academics argue, this is the source they go to. Sada and I both had to write a thesis (hers on Bret Easton Ellis, mine on Salman Rushdie), and we both were thinking about what it would be like to access similar resources available for our research. Again, Sada and I stood and stared. Stared and stared some more.
There is also an early manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately they had to put it in storage so there was an exact facsimile, written on vellum. And yet still, we were in awe.
Some notes by one of America’s most celebrated writers, Mark Twain. Everyone loves Twain, and he’s one of those writers that seems to belong to everyone, so I never considered I would see his writing. I imagine his stuff is spread out all over, and locked away from the public; available to only the most serious academic.
Some notes by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I saw the Keats-Shelley apartment in Rome. And once again, to see his handwritten notes was beyond words. To see his art in human touch, not just printed in mass produced books. To see his heavy stroke, the deep depths of his ink, and his passionate scratching out was incredible.
And finally, poor Jack London. He was worried about his manuscript The Sea-Wolf burning in his home, so he placed it in a fire-proof box, which sadly was destroyed in the San Francisco fires of 1906.
Museums generally offer art for the public to view. I love looking at paintings, sculptures, digital art, etc, but my favorite art of all by far, is the written word. I love that it can be mass produced and shared with the public. I love that it is the simplest form of art and also the very hardest. To transform someone’s thoughts, to be able to influence a person’s perspective, and get into their mind, well, to me, that’s the most amazing art of all. There is a noble beauty in a story that remains the same over and over and over, regardless of publisher, nevermind the book cover, forget the passage of time. The story remains and lives on forever. No one need worry that the single piece will be destroyed. There are other copies. Someone can reprint it. But then, to be able to see the writer’s form, their penmanship, or typing, or organization, that is part of their craft as well. I want to see what their process was, I want to explore more, and most often, their old manuscripts are kept locked away, for posterity, for future academics. I understand, but part of me wants to say, what about the current readers? Don’t we get to see these early drafts of art?
The Huntington Library fulfilled all those desires. I saw things I never thought possible. And the room itself that they are all stored in was magnificent. Dark panelling; an old safe that was open, empty, and visible; leather benches, long, long, heavy, dark drapes all set the tone for the perfect literary experience.
Sada and I walked the gardens, and sat briefly on this bench. A couple walked by and offered to take our photo. It was a quiet moment after such a glorious day.
Maya Angelou, (I realize and recognize she is Dr. Maya Angelou but I grew up reading her as Maya Angelou) died yesterday and I am truly affected by her death. I read her in high school and I quickly became obsessed with her and read everything she had written. Former President Bill Clinton nominated her as our nation’s poet laureate, and she read a poem she wrote for his inauguration. Regardless of what he does, for the rest of his life, I will always respect and admire his decision to ask Angelou to write a poem for the United States. He acknowledged how important art, and specifically, Angelou is to our country.
At eighteen I was introduced first to Jack Kerouac, then Henry Miller, after that Charles Bukowski, and then naturally, Arthur Rimbaud. All of these writers affected and influenced me. I became obsessed with Rimbaud and started reading everything I could get my hands on. Initially I found the books slowly, at used book stores, most often the Strand in New York. I then worked in a Barnes and Noble and had access to their book database. I special ordered book after book. I spent hundreds of dollars. Once ebay was founded, I began ordering books on there. I have quite a collection and I am extremely proud of it.
It’s banned book week! Or rather, it was last week. . . .Time to celebrate those books that have been challenged and banned. Many classics that have been a part of the literary canon for decades have had their merit questioned. We have days to commemorate what happened. And we have Banned Books Week to remind us of what could have happened. We could have lost so much art if brave publishers and booksellers did not protest censorship. Books were banned for their language and content. Anything remotely sexual was considered pornographic. Racial slurs used to indicate a racist society were challenged. Something slightly bawdy was banned. And books that reinterpret religious texts were burned. Why? They are all merely ideas. They are all just musings, just observations, just words. But people become so caught up in their personal beliefs that they want to force them on other people. It seems strange to me that books are still being challenged and banned to this day. Continue reading →