Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The quiet charm of celebrity

Full title: Behind Closed Doors. The Private Homes of 25 of the World's Most Creative People
Author: Rob Meyers
Genre: Non fiction
Attributes: 256p, hard cover
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books(2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This book is the result of an original project devised by Rob Meyers (current Creative Director of Clash magazine) in 2007. In the author's words, the details read as follow:
“This project has been running now for five years. It began life as part of my final year project at Central Saint Martins and was then developed by London-based Garage magazine, who helped me source some amazing homes after inviting the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ concept into the pages of their biannual art and fashion publication.”
The idea behind the project consisted of sending disposable cameras to a number of house owners (most of them celebrities), and asking them to take photos of whatever they thought to be outstanding, quirky, or plain interesting. The book contains images from 22 properties, provided by 25 contributors (as some appear in couples). All topped up by Rob Meyer’s take on his own house.

Source: Thin Blue Line
The book may be regarded as an anthology; it certainly looks that way. But there are several aspects that upset a clear-cut definition. To start with, these photographs are not taken professionally. And as a result, they don’t have a unique vision. They have no design unity either. But it is exactly this lack of polish and vision that makes them look more convincing, more organic.
Then, the way stories are created out of these photographs depends to a great extent on their unedited nature. A patch of ripped wallpaper here, a dinted piece of furniture there, a cheesy detail, a silly thing, a technical imperfection – all this makes it almost impossible to think that spotlights ever exist around the owners of these houses. Some of the resulting images (not all, to be sure) are so mundane, so neglectfully naïve, that they breathe an unexpected air of normality. And this is clearly where Rob Meyers wanted to take his project.
In order to summarize the book (not an easy task, considering its diversity), I decided to assign one-word descriptions to each of the celebrities featuring in Behind Closed Doors, to describe the way they appeared to me through the lens of the images they submitted. I believe even after a cursory inspection of the volume (which relies, obviously, on its visual impact) the dividing lines are likely to appear more pronounced and easier to acknowledge. Personalities pop out, identities take shape, voices develop slowly. And that, when put together, means charm.
So here we go, in the order of appearance:
Cortney Love is agglomerated; Lord Peregrine and Lady Catherine St Germans are honest; Jeremy Scott is colourful; Aimee Mullins is unfortunate; Christopher Simmonds is naïve; Marta Stewart is show-offish; Mr and Mrs Lorimer are bold; Matthew Stone is insistent; Terence Koh is artsy; Olivier Theyskens is reflective; Vince Aletti is saucy; Kyle Stewart and Jo Sindle are intimate; Marvin Scott Jarrett is suggestive; Gary Card is bizarre; Oleg Dou is visionary; Marc Quinn is impressive; Conor Donlon is clean; Tavi Gevinson is open; Simon Foxton is self-conscious; Martin Raymond and Chris Sanderson are mindful of photographic effects; Nicola Formichetti is glitzy.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Ways of reading, ways of thinking

Full title: How to talk about books you haven't read
Author: Pierre Bayard

Genre: Non fiction
Attributes: 208 pages, hard cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA(2009)

On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Reading, Pierre Bayard thinks, needs to be regarded in a way that puts the very idea of attentive, close, polite reading at a halt. He professes that reading is a lot more haphazard than we like to think; something closer to skimming, i.e. programmatically incomplete reading. This will sound outrageous to many. At the end of the day, reading has become so organically tied to us we refuse to believe it is a habit which, like all habits, has been appropriated through the labor of practice and obedience. But the point is so simply put in Bayard’s book, and so closely to the core of our experience of reading (and not to the myths and metaphors associated with it) that we can’t resist the temptation to put our own selves in perspective.
“The encounter with the infinity of available books offers a certain encouragement not to read at all. Faced with a quantity of books so vast that nearly all of them must remain unknown, how can we escape the conclusion that even a lifetime of reading is utterly in vain?”
To Bayard, skimming is a lot closer to what most readers experience while reading. In fact, reading is not a form of memorization, but one of forgetting. When we read – his argument goes – we have to make room for what comes after the words we are reading right here, right now. And that room is made by removing things that stay in the way of those words; which are, yes, you guessed it, things we forget.

British Museum Reading Room
Source: Wikipedia
And here’s the most important argument of Pierre Bayard’s: reading is to be found in the way we manage to connect the pieces of text that we retain.
"Most statements about a book are not about the book itself, despite appearances, but about the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment. It is that set, which I shall henceforth refer to as the collective library, that truly matters, since it is our mastery of this collective library that is at stake in all discussions about books. But this mastery is a command of relations, not of any book in isolation, and it easily accommodates ignorance of a large part of the whole.”
Because we forget most of the stuff we read, we are bound to recollect, when that is possible, the trajectories of one passage towards another, of one set of words towards the one next to it. Ultimately, when we read we create a sort of universal text, the text of all possible connections. This may seem nostalgic of Borges, and maybe Bayard is, indeed, a fan of the blind Argentinian. Borges himself, with his intuition, was capable to imagine that great expanse of cultural matter that presents itself to us in the form of a library. Spot on!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Three years among superlatives

Full title: Paris Portraits. Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle

AuthorHarriet Lane Levy
Genre: Non fiction, memoir
Attributes: 103 p, hard cover

Publisher: Heyday (2011)

On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Between 1907 and 1910, Harriet Lane Levy spent three of the most incredible years in Paris, surrounded by the greatest names in art and literature at the time. She’d left San Francisco along with Alice B. Tolkas, the woman who later would become the closest friend, confidante, and lover of Gertrude Stein.
From the experience of having lived with the Steins and their friends, protégés, and sometimes enemies came out this book full of superlatives. Paris Portraits is about a sweet age of laissez-faire, at the turn of the twentieth century, when women offered their minds to the gods of leisure, and men were consumed with the intensity of art. This was a world where lines of force were drawn only by the strongest, most unbending spirits, while the weak trailed behind, drenched in their own insignificance and maybe lack of luck.
What really stand out in this book are the portraits of the Stein family. We find, for instance, that the Steins were somewhat divided between Picasso and Matisse, Leo and Gertrude having opted for the former, while Sarah had embraced the latter wholehartedly. It is through the passionate defense of these two artists that we come to realize how strong the personalities of these people were: so strong, they crushed everything under the weight of their convictions. This explains why, for instance,
“Sarah’s defense of Matisse as he grew in prestige was not only a defense of Matisse but a defense of the ramparts of her own judgment and authority.”
To gauge the weight of this tiny book one needs to take a look at Harriet Lane Levy’s entourage while in Paris. There are pages upon pages where she speaks of eating and drinking with people who have made history. For instance, a dinner in Montmartre, at the house of Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau, becomes a unique chance of painting a tableau of the greats through their gestures and words.
“Everybody sat down at the table. Fernande [mistress of Picasso, himself present at the table] commanded and we found our chairs. Leo [Stein] drew his violin from its case. Braque placed his accordion before him. Marie Laurencin took a seat beside Apollinaire, who held a manuscript in his hand. At the head of the table, in the chair of honor, raised high on a platform, Rousseau set, smiling at the faces before him.”
Gertrude Stein looms like a constant threat throughout the book. So that Levy
rarely gathers her own forces to say things like this about her. Which, in truth,
are not things about Gertrude but rather about those who lived in her shadow.
There are many other scenes like this in the book, revealing Levy constantly on the edge, always fascinated by the people she met, always seeming to have seen more than she could describe in words. And thus Paris Portraits turns out to be a chronicle of her self as much as a chronicle of the world around her.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Titanic, again

Full title: Titanic 101. The Great Infographic History

Authors: Steve Hall (text) and Katie Beard (design)
Genre: Non fiction, monograph
Attributes: 144 pages, hard cover

Publisher: The History Press (2013)

On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Titanic 101, with a title that sounds like that of a university course, is an interesting collection of facts for the Titanic devotees. This is not exactly a book to read. It is one to look through. For a quick absorption of all the facts listed in this little reference book, the authors incorporated suggestive infographics: 101 of them, to be precise. These visual aids are perhaps the most original aspect, since the factual load is sometimes so intuitive it seems like information taken from any of the encyclopedic works published at any time in the last century or so. But for the non-specialist there are still a lot of things to wonder at. We find out, for instance, that the most common surnames on-board the vessel were Swift, Taylor, Davis, and Brown. Insofar as the first names are concerned, one of the infographics shows that William ruled among men and Mary among women.
Of the 48 millionaires on board, Lt Col John Jacob Astor IV (who, like many others, did not survive) was the wealthiest, with a fortune of about one hundred million.
There are pages where we get a glimpse of more detailed aspects of the voyage. One infographic speaks of 12 cases of feathers, 860 rolls of linoleum (as to how long these rolls were, we don’t know), 78 cases of gloves. We take a deep breath and go on. 63 cases of champagne, 110 cases of brandy, 437 cases of tea, 107 cases of books (I wonder how many that means) – offerings to the leisure class, objects loaded on board that ship which narrowly missed being their temple, and instead became their mausoleum.
Insofar as the book itself is concerned, here are some of its own facts: 101 infographics (already mentioned), 143 pages divided into 4 categories: 1. matters of design, 2. the voyage itself, 3. the impact and the sinking of the Titanic, and finally 4. the post-wreck period.

The Titanic and its people: a floating society divided into classes
Source: The Casemate Blog
Each of the four sections has an introductory text by Steve Hall, “one of the world’s foremost authorities on Titanic’s design and general working arrangements.” Unfortunately, nothing is said about Katie Beard, mentioned on the cover as the author of the infographics but nowhere else cited; not even in the Acknowledgments section, where Steve Hall apologizes for any names he may have forgotten to add to his list of people of importance to the project. Never mind, one might say; an image is always worth a thousand words.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Neil Gaiman + Chip Kidd = "Make Good Art"

Full title: Neil Gaiman's 'Make Good Art' Speech

Authors: Neil Gaiman & Chip Kidd
Genre: Non fiction, speech
Attributes: 80 pages, hard cover

Publisher: William Morrow (2013)

On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This little book is an ambitious exercise in typography, based on a lecture given by Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, at the beginning of the university year in 2012. The speech was received with ear-piercing acclaims, as Gaiman touched on a topic very likely to have visited university students at some point in their lives: rules. As would be expected from someone who hasn’t been quite orthodox about the employment of rules, Neil Gaiman managed to make a good point about life in a rebellious state – which is the state of the artist. His motivational speech encourages creative approaches to life, to work, to emotions, to desires. And for easier persuasion, he used his own example:
“When I was asked by editors who I’d worked for, I lied. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely, and I sounded confident, and I got jobs. I then made it a point of honour to have written something for each of the magazines I’d listed to get that first job, so that I hadn’t actually lied, I’d just been chronologically challenged…”
The speech is an achievement in itself – an event with an enviable reception. But the little book that resulted from the collaboration of Neil Gaiman and Chip Kidd (a graphic designer and author with his own respectability and originality) is more than just a transcript. Every page is a typographic surprise. It does carry the text along (as all pages should), but does so unexpectedly, through the material presence of the typographic sign. It is curious to see, as a reader, how lines flow from one page to the one next to it. Linear progression is interrupted and the text becomes more interesting. There are no ‘normal’ pauses, at the end of sentences, or in places where ideas have reached their terminus. Instead, interruptions appear everywhere: after a handful of words, in the middle of a sentence, at an arbitrary moment in the development of a concept. Any spot is a good spot for these interruptions, and Chip Kidd made good use of the freedom he gained (to keep within the scope of Gaiman’s speech) from not following typographic rules.

The actual speech (2012)

After encountering these original solutions, one grows aware of the limitations of a page; one also understands how deeply regulated the very notion of typography is. The typographic sign doesn’t appear in its usual place, filling the page like a block with one point of entry and one point of exit. Single lines, severed sentences, are often the only things featuring on a given page, and that, indeed, generates a feeling of surprise when the sentence needs to be sought-for. What’s really interesting is that Neil Gaiman’s text becomes secondary. Secondary not in the sense of becoming insignificant, but in the sense of becoming the support, the material enunciation needed for this display of typographic prowess to unfold freely.