I’m packing my library to move. Yes, I am. I get to handle each of the thousands of books I own, the dust coating my hands, the acrid smell of bookstores and thriftstores and basements and the bright scents of fresh ink and the perfumes of the people who have owned them before me caught in between the yellowing pages, called “sunning” in the trade. Some I’ll turn over in my hands over and over like a gemstone plucked from the morain, some I’ll grab by the stackful and unceremoniously shove into a crate for its trip to its new home. One of the ways of fending off the sadness of life for me is a periodical reshuffling of my book collection. That it’s been over a year since I last reshuffled them is probably a good sign for my overall mental health. Over the years, in various houses, in-between moves as it were, I spend long stretches of time staring at the books on their shelves. The library is an extension of my mind, the place where I store quite a few of the most important thoughts and experiences I’ve ever had, too many memories to count. I own the encyclopedia that as a small boy I forced myself to try to memorize the whole of it, from the succession of English kings to the diagrams for the internal combustion engine. On the inside flap of a book is a list made long ago and only very occasionally updated of all the people I’ve ever loved. There’s copies of Kerouac with coffee stains and erotica with unknown stains and a dog-eared sci-fi novel that has written on the inside back cover the email addresses of everyone I met on a youthful adventure across the American South.
Staring at them, after memorizing their positions, I’ll take one down, flip through its pages (where I often hide messages to myself: photographs, tickets of all kinds, scraps of paper I think are worth saving, all get tucked into a random book for later consumption as madeleines). Maybe I’ll read the cover, the inside flaps, a few paragraphs to remind me of the rhythm of the book, like a pianist playing a few notes from a favorite song. Sometimes I’ll sit down and read the whole thing, getting lost in the words, finding myself in the story, setting it down afterwards with starry eyes and that delicious feeling of inspiration.
Going to the small gallery at LACMA where this small and beautiful exhibition by RB Kitaj is hidden, it’s one of those rare moments when I can so literally and so easily connect the passion I have for the all-at-once, bracing wonder of looking at a good work of art and the plodding, labyrinths of memory and imagination I get from really reading. The title, In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part, 1969, has the kind of poetical ring and so many small poetical shifts and measures. My library is in truth as well a small library, compared to the Library of Congress or the Bibliothèque Nationale, calling my collection of books a library is like calling a pond the ocean, but it’s my pond and for all the avarice that comes from “collecting,” I’m still proud of it. Though I tend in moments of exuberance to give my favorite books away to those whom I hope will be galvanized as I was by its contents, I still have a few small treasures tucked away, the most important being of course the most personal.
Why did Kitaj blow-up and silk screen his library? Why does the title include “After the Life” and “for the Most Part”? Only he (or perhaps a dogged biographer) can of course answer that. As small as it is, and as small as this portfolio may be in a long and varied career for Kitaj that had less to do with silkscreens of course and more to do with painting, this series is a beautiful and small insight into one man, a lover of books, and a few of the books he collected.
We can of course talk about the history of graphic design, the appeal of the retro, the wear and tear evident on the covers from Kitaj’s handling or likely a previous owner’s rough-and-ready use, and these things are important too; it’s really about the relationship of a creative person to those things that they love. It might be framed as simple appropriation, but even then is there not both the love and the critique of the thing being appropriated? An ambiguous self-reflection on what it means to collect even anything, the soft lies of acquisition and the wonder of forgetting oneself with the things that you love? Aren’t all acts of art the creating of a kind of fiction that one can physically enter into as it is with all books? No matter how much they (whether book or art) endeavor to pose as fact or truth, they will always have some element of fiction, even perhaps a fiction that we ourselves bring to it. Which is to say, perhaps it doesn’t even matter that Kitaj owned any of these books--this is a strange and wonderful collection, satisfying to stand and look at for much too long. Last I went, I pulled away earlier than I wanted understanding that my date, a deep appreciator of art and books, might not share quite the same gentle madness that I do.
And it is a gentle madness (a phrase I first read as the title of Nicholas Basbanes thrilling [for me] book about book collecting). As I feel the accumulated weight of all my years of collected books, one-by-one my hands, by the dozens in crates, I’m grateful for every last one, and wouldn’t if I didn’t have to, part with a single one. Though not celebrated as objects in quite the same way as art is, Kitaj’s books and my books, are things that can inspire the same aesthetic depth, coiled meanings, and simple visual pleasure as any art I’ve known.