Truth and fiction

History is after all only a pack of tricks we play on the dead,” said Voltaire.

Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad–but memory is certainly unreliable. There are as many versions of history as there are historians. There are certainly as many possible memoirs as authors to write them. Facts are elusive. The truth of fiction has never had to depend on facts.

But more recently and again and again, memoir and fiction have been joined.
A recent book, The Lifespan of a Fact, is a debate by essayist, John D’Agata, and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, over D’Agata’s essay about the suicide of a teen (Levi Presley) who leapt from the tallest tower on the Las Vegas strip. The essay is reprinted at the center of each page with Fingal’s notations about inaccuracies, altered quotes, half-remembered events, and outright falsehoods–and D’Agata’s response. Says the writer: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art–a truer experience for the reader–than if I stuck to the facts.”

“You’re inventing significance,” Fingal writes to him in Lifespan. “It’s not like you’re interpreting empirical data and prophetically unveiling to us a meaning that was hiding there all along. You’re threading Levi’s life through a needle you made.”

D’Agata may not be the best spokesman for his point of view, but he still has a case to make. “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.”

I haven’t read the book and probably won’t. What I’ve quoted is from an article on Slate by Dan Kois who is deeply troubled by the debate, and especially by D’Agata’s cavalier attitude towards facts (“The Lifespan of a Fact: Essayist John D’Agata defends his right to fudge the truth”). When he describes his struggle with the issue, when he repeats his despairing “I don’t know what to do,” a writer he admires responds, “Just keep writing.” “And so I did,” he says.

The fact is that the fiction writer has always mixed fact and imagination to produce art or “story truth” but since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, one of the first of the “non-fiction novels,”  the question of what is or is not real, what is or is not true, has become critical.

And, for the life of me, all I can offer is the same advice as was given to Dan Kois, “Just keep writing.”

Why read? Why write? Why live?

Some people suggest that reading, and especially reading literature, is out of style and will gradually become obsolete. After all, you can find any information you need on the Internet. Graphic novels and celebrity memoirs are the order of the day. Reading literature—whether poetry, fiction, plays, biographies or critical essays—is no longer something many people do. For pleasure, they watch TV and movies, or play video games. For business and learning, they consult Google or Wikipedia.

A recently published book by Marjorie Garber entitled “Use and Abuse of Literature” argues that literature does something no other medium can do: “The absence of answers or determinate meanings” is exactly the set of  “qualities that make a passage or a work literary.”

Literary works have no single meaning. More probably, they have many interpretations. They leave readers with questions and moral quandaries; they don’t impart facts or moral truths so much as they educate us to question the world and our place in it. They make us more human.

 And so, says reviewer Seth Lerer, of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Why read? In the end, the answer to the question is as complex and compelling as “why live?”

Then there’s that other question: “Why write?”

The answer is not to make something for readers to read. There’s already a surfeit of books.

Reading about the contemporary publishing of books can drive a hopeful writer into a deep, deep depression. Publishing companies are going broke. Thousands of people are self-publishing, the vast majority of them with memoirs and how-to books. Unfortunately, many of those how-to books are writing manuals. The how-to’s and— for those with more money and the right connections—the writing workshops for the MFA degree, have bred hundreds of thousands of would-be authors, says Jessa Crispin, an editor and blogger (Bookslut.com).

The deluge of writers is not new. The widespread publication of them is. There have always been the hobbyists, the men and women who scribble their life stories for the benefit of their children or grandchildren, the poems hidden in the bottom drawer, the screenplay the banker works on before bed. Tell someone in a bar that you’re a writer and within seconds they’re tellling you an idea for a novel they’ve been mulling over and asking you for tips. Telling stories, constructing narratives out of the chaos of our lives, fantasizing about what could be—they’re all in our blood. Putting it down on paper is an act of optimism. It’s willful, and it helps us make sense of things.

The difference is that now whatever you can scribble on paper or type on your computer, you might as well publish as a book. What was once fantasy—becoming a published writer—now can be a reality. Sorta. You and your book have to face the [resulting] din and most likely will get lost in it. All that respect, glory, and laurels you expected would greet you in your new life as a writer is still in the realm of the fantastic. You’re met instead with silence, just of a different sort.

The how-to books and the MFA’s, says Crispin, have become an industry with an eager clientele.

When things are so uncertain—and the publishing industry is nothing but uncertain these days—people look for someone to tell them what to do. Those taking their money probably aren’t going to do much to question their motives, or clue them into all the other ways to go about things. Certainly not when excising all their adjectives, replacing their libraries of novels with guides, writing their memoirs or maybe a vampire trilogy, and submitting to agents seems like such a sensible, tried-and-true-pathway to becoming a writer. Whatever that may be.

The answer to the question “Why read?” is clear. The answer to the question, “Why write?” is less certain. Ambiguous. Indeterminate. Almost like literature itself. Like life itself.

The library at nightfall

 Now he would prowl the stacks of the library at night, pulling books out of a thousand shelves and reading them like a madman. The thought of these vast stacks of books would drive him mad; the more he read, the less he seemed to know—the greater the number of books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be… He read insanely, by the hundreds, the thousands, the ten thousands…. The thought that other books were waiting for him tore at his heart forever. He pictured himself as tearing the entrails from a book as from a fowl. – Tom Wolfe, Time and the River
                                                                                                                                

And that’s the problem with libraries. With bookstores. And certainly with the internet. With life.

Stories, multifarious facts, ideas, questions of every shape and size range around us and the day is beginning to fade and there’s not enough time left. There’s never been enough time left.

Night falls in the library

 

Will Paradise be “a kind of library?”

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.    – Jorge Luis Borges

There are libraries that are so physically beautiful, their creators must have modeled them on some heavenly idea of a treasure box. It’s as if they knew that only a building constructed of precious stones and the finest woods could adequately house a commodity like the book.

Beautiful libraries date back to ancient times—Alexandria, Rome, the Valley of Mexico, China, Arabic Spain, the Vatican—but anyone who has passed time at the New York City Public Library knows how extraordinary and fantastical libraries still are. Just sit at one of those long tables where the wood has known the impress of readers researching the creatures of Greek myth, the ruin of ancient cities and the weapons of modern warfare, the faith of Buddhists, the political machines of Chicago or the fine wines of California. Whoever it was who sat where you are sitting may have been a scholar, a writer, an advertising executive, a teacher, or a plumber on his day off. He, or she, may have been writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning history or researching the best cheeses. She, or he, may have been reading a Shakespearean play or studying the history of the stock market. The library contains the world, and you have been dropped there at its heart. You sit there, blessed by the long light from tall windows and the rustle of soft voices and turning pages. It’s like grace.

New York Public Library. Rose Main Reading Room. Photo by David Iliff. Featured photo in English Wikipedia. Creative Commons license.

There are much smaller libraries like that in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Climb a circular staircase in St. Johnsbury’s Athenaeum to reference books where you can study a volume of Abby Hemenway’s Gazeteer for Orleans County where the tales of pioneers like Silence Cobb and Samuel Craftsbury come to life on the yellowing pages. There, where shelves of books stand tall as the ceiling, if you pay close attention to tomes rich with agricultural statistics you can hear sheep bleating; if you study Fodor’s you can travel the world and back in the space of a few hours. Of course, that’s if you have an imagination. But who wouldn’t in a space so rich and so full of past lives?

Athenaeum library. St. Johnsbury, VT

The libraries of the Northeast Kingdom often occupy old houses where extended families celebrated the holidays in what was once a formal dining room or a parlor, or stores where the wooden floors still slope, where the shelves that hold books once held sugar and flour, where a glass cabinet once exhibited ladies hats for sale. The rooms in these libraries are astir with the people who once lived there, shopped there, or shared the town’s gossip. The hubbub from them and from the thousands of characters who inhabit all those books would be overwhelming if we could hear it. But magically, it’s become a remarkable silence—a full living silence. Not like any other.

The Haskell Library is on the Canadian border. You enter on the U.S. side and explore the stacks on the Canadian. The reading room is octagonal, in part, with stained glass windows that cast color on the polished oak floor and a wonderful fireplace.

In the Northeast Kingdom, you can sit by fireplaces of colored brick, granite, or marble on the finest oak furniture or a grand settee. You can daydream while you watch the light stream through a stained glass window. You can admire old bindings or read the latest mystery novel.

Today, of course, you can also google and write e-mails and research oceanic tides and African tribes online. You can play video games and chafe at the news in the Huffington Post. All in those same magical places.

Over the millenia, books have come in the form of stones, bamboo strips and silk sheets, the skins of animals, clay tablets, papyrus, parchment and bound paper. Today, they come in computers made of metal, plastic and who knows which of its derivatives—and inside, information transformed into digits.

Libraries have come in just as many forms. None of them have endured: most often, they’ve been destroyed by war and fire, and the information stored in them lost.

12thcentury library ruins. Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo by Trey Ratcliff (Stuck in Customs). Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Perhaps digital information will be different since it’s ubiquitous and not confined to any single place. As different as our new libraries.

Still, I can’t help hoping the libraries of the future have fireplaces, comfortable chairs, old wood and ghosts lurking ‘round.

Will our libraries turn into Starbucks?

The other day I ran across this query by Scott McLeod on bigthink. He was speculating about the future of the library in our computer age.

When books, magazines, newspapers reference materials, music, movies and other traditional library content all go electronic and online—deliverable on demand—what does that mean for the future of the physical spaces known as “libraries?” M.E. said to me that we already should be taking yellow caution tape and blocking off the entire non-fiction and reference sections of our libraries. As content becomes digital and no longer needs to be stored on a shelf, with what do we replace that now-unused floor space? Couches, tables and cozy chairs? computer stations? meeting space? And if we head in these directions what will distinguish libraries from other institutions such as coffee shops, community centers and Internet cafes?

And so I was led to contemplate the library, and especially the public library—its history, its function, its future and, of course, to look for books on the subject.

In the introduction to Stuart Murray’s book, The library: an illustrated history, Nicholas Basbanes recalls a book published during the deep Depression by a bibliophile named Paul Jourdan-Smith who observed that people were using their local libraries in record numbers. They were sanctuaries in a time of need. Basbanes then goes on to remember the mayor of New York, Fiorella La Guardia, and his radio broadcasts to the city’s citizens after Pearl Harbor. He always concluded with the words “patience and fortitude,” words that made such a deep impression on a troubled population, that the names were given to the two marble lions that flank the entryway to the New York Public Library.

Patience or Fortitude (I don't know which) at the New York Public Library. Photo by grahamwell. Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Libraries assumed new importance again during our current recession. Visits increased more than thirteen percent in 2008 and more than 10 percent in 2009, despite deep budget cuts.

Libraries matter, and for many of us, they matter desperately.

I started looking at them again when I returned to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I don’t know what it’s like in most of rural America, but our libraries are very special. Most of them are housed in architectural marvels, many with marble fireplaces, stained glass, and fancy cornices. Others have fascinating histories—old grocery stores whose floor boards creak in the same places they did decades ago, whose shelves used to hold milled grain instead of books; homes with fluted Ionic pilasters and elegant staircases; a library whose stacks are in Canada and the librarian’s desk in the United States. Our libraries deserve a book of their own; perhaps they’ll get one before it’s too late.

The library at the Athenaeum. St. Johnsbury, VT. Photo by origamidon. Don Shall. Flickr. Creative Commons.

I don’t think our country libraries will be converted to Scott McLeod’s odd vision of library-as-Starbucks in the next year or two, though the rate at which things happen today is astounding, and nothing is happening faster than advances in information technology. The question for most book and library lovers is how can we do without the smell of books, the way they feel to the touch, the way they stack up, the fanning out of pages, the mysterious life that’s theirs?

What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians were reposing here as in some dormitory, or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odor of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of the sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.   Charles Lamb (1775-1834), Essays of Elia. Oxford in the Vacation.

I was given a Kindle for Christmas, and yesterday I ordered a newly published book, Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles. As I read it and reveled in its exuberant descriptions of books and libraries, past and present, I found myself suddenly uncomfortable. I knew the book would be a better read between hard covers.

Melissa Zink and the book

Melissa Zink, c.1995, Embudo, New Mexico. Photo by Margery Franklin.

  It’s difficult to write about Melissa Zink. I’ve seen only one art piece by her, and then briefly. Photographs, because they’re from only one perspective and most of her work is sculptural, can’t tell me everything I want to know. I need to see what she does in the round, and I need to examine its detail, because some of it is very detailed indeed. She has written much more about what she’s created, and how, than most visual artists do, and that’s a help. It’s also one of the reasons, I think, I’m so drawn to her work. She loves words. Her art is all about the experience of reading. She loved books.  

She must have been a terribly dissatisfied person for most of her life. She studied art, chiefly at the Kansas City Art Institute where abstract expressionism was the rage. She didn’t like it. She couldn’t do it. She married, raised a daughter, and worked with her husband in a custom framing shop. Her painting, she said, was “uncertain, kind of whispy.” How awful it must have been to need to make things, but instead only frame what others had made. But she could read, couldn’t she? I’m sure she did.    

In 1970, Melissa Zink’s frustration led to what she later called “a rebellious moment,” when she convinced her husband to move to the southwestern Colorado town of Silverton, elevation 9,318 feet. Something about the mountains, a feeling of freedom, began to change her, and change her life. Over the next five years, she divorced her husband, then married again.   

Melissa and Nelson Zink. 1980. Photo by Margery Franklin.

    

One day, saddened by her confusion about her life and its purpose, her husband asked her what she wanted to be. “An artist,” she responded. He encouraged her, and one day suggested that she might like to try potting instead of painting. That first pot was a disaster, but it was the beginning. Soon she was making odd little creatures in clay and setting them in ceramic scenes. In 1979, in her mid forties, she had her first gallery showing.    

Melissa Zink working. Late 1970s. Photo by Margery Franklin.

 One of the wonderful things about Zink is that she never stopped evolving as an artist. When she died at 77 last year, she was still growing and changing. From the beginnings of her life as an artist in her forties, until the last, she had a wonderful sense of humor (chock full of  irony and whimsy). In her hands the book achieved a marvellous resonance. I’ll never look at one in quite the same way again.   

Art of Biography, 1991, mixed media. 17x42.5x5 inches.

From the beginning her goal in her art was to explore and replicate her own experience of reading, although she wasn’t always conscious that that’s what she was doing.  Her first ceramic sculptures in the late 1970s and 1980s were stories, but so multi-faceted.

This so-called story was a strong visual image and its accompanying feelings, she wrote in a speech in 1994. More properly I think it might be called ‘as if it were a story.’ I disguised myself as an itinerant potter who with her faithful companions, Dog and Valise, traveled the world, the past and the present. I became someone called Gypsy Dog and with my best friend, Hattie Max William, enjoyed another series of adventures through time and place.    

Gypsy Dog Alias Gertrude Stein, Paris, 1906. 1985.
Predictably, Water Dog arrived late for the Scribing of the Mystic Garden. 1983, ceramic and mixed media. 9.5x26.5x16.

 She thought of many of her works as museums.    

The largest of the museums, The Museum of the Mind, was built in 1982. I was beginning to be interested in metaphor and in this piece I used a mysterious structure filled with representations of art objects and odd debris, a metaphoric storehouse of images in the artist’s mind. One side is covered with names of my favorite artists, among them Stanly Spencer, Marcel Duchamp, Goya, Hogarth, Breughel, and many others. You can see a figure on her hands and knees searching among the shards for a lost image.  

Museum of the Mind, 1981, ceramic sculpture, 19x17x17.

In the mid 1980s she began to use a wider variety of materials, especially wood and paper. In the early 1990s, she experimented for a while with arrangements: I would provide the setting, figures and objects which a hypothetical viewer-purchaser could arrange as she or he fancied.   

By the 1990s, the number of elements in her works had multiplied, and many of them took an even more distinctly literary turn. Her figures became more abstract at the same time as they became more profoundly human.    

Illuminations from a Dark Wood, 1999, mixed media, 22.5x18.25x7.75.

Dante’s Dark Wood was “one of a group of pieces called ‘Sticks,’ some of which were derived from the Divine Comedy and some from the properties of the sticks themselves…   

From my scatter shot approach, I hope you can see how intricate the process was, how varied and filled with odd twists and turns. And as she grew she understood more and more clearly the focus of her quest:    

… from the unconscious came the understanding that what I had been looking for was a multiplicity of images. What I had so longed to catch hold of and understand was how to convey the linearity of books and of reading. I could see that the magic I wanted to express lay in presenting many images simultaneously and discretely, so that it would be impossible to see the whole at once. The reading experience, the looking-at-book experience is compressed from hours to minutes, but the structure is the same. That is, the viewer looks at one, then another, then another image, just as one reads another page and sees another mental picture or leafs through the illustrations of a book, pausing here, hurrying there. And with each image, another feeling. And I wanted there to be a simultaneous sensuous experience of an object which would consciously or unconsciously evoke old books. I knew other things as well: that I wanted to use paper, particularly old paper; that I could have text and use sculpture as much or as little as I wished, that the colors I loved were the colors of old bookbinding and end papers. I knew that the computer could reproduce all the type and borders, numbers and letters, worlds legible and illegible, illustrations from old medical books and catalogues, all the things I had looked at and loved. I had managed to smear the line between my life and my art ….    

I’m not going to try to say more, or even quote more. This is, after all, only a post. Thanks to the Melissa Zink Retrospective, I’ve acquired enough material for a life or two, or at least a library of  long, long books. I’m going to conclude with some of my favorite pieces and a special thanks to Stephen Parks and the Parks Gallery in Taos, New Mexico for permitting me to use the images in this post.    

Reader and Writer Imagining. 2004, mixed media, 13x17.5x3.
Some People, Some Times. 2000, mixed media, 27x43.5x2.
Tender. 2004, oil and mixed media, 19x17x2.

Clotheslines

My computer is back and whole after having received a hard drive transplant, and some fooling and fiddling. I should be eager and ready to produce a post, but I find I’m mostly befuddled. Partly, I suppose it’s a matter of us both — the computer and myself — needing to readjust. But it’s also that I’ve fallen in love with Melissa Zink, the artist I quoted in my last very short post.

Sadly, she died a year and a couple of months ago, so there will be no meeting the living, breathing artist, but she was prolific and there’s a lot to look at. She was also articulate, and so there’s a good bit to read. Her art centered on books and the experience of reading, and since I too love books, I’m especially eager to know her better.

But there are two problems. The first is that I don’t know her work well enough to write about it. Not yet anyway. The second is that I need permission to put up pictures of her work. And that may take some time. In the meantime, for anyone who’s curious, there’s a Melissa Zink Retrospective online that’s extensive and wonderful.

Melissa Zink Artist Statement

What we are looking for, whether in a gallery or a shop, is transportation to that remarkable state of mind which seems like a brief glimpse of Enlightenment. It is probably irrelevant how it is produced. The state of mind, I mean. Whether a Balinese tobacco container or a Rembrandt etching takes one’s breath away, what is crucial is to become breathless.

I started thinking about things that take my breath away, not necessarily art, though, from my point of view, they should inspire it. I thought of the sea; massive trees and seedlings; roses in the spring and bougainvilla on a San Francisco Victorian; old skin that’s like thin, white parchment; the smell of ripe peaches; french fries; the rattle and whistle of palm trees full of starlings. But what I stopped at — mostly because I have some slides and I don’t think I’ll ever come up with the right post for them if I don’t do it now — is clotheslines.

They’re history now, clotheslines are, since we’ve all gone to electric dryers. Not to say dryers aren’t interesting, spinning clothes have their own metaphorical power, I guess. But clotheslines are better.

Unless you’re very fortunate, there probably aren’t any clotheslines in your vicinity, so you’ll have to remember them, or imagine them. The shirts, dresses and pants still bear the impress of bodies, and the shapes shift as a soft wind fills each one, Sometimes there are stains, stretching, fading, tears and the patching up of them, that give us the details.

There are short stories, sometimes whole novels on clotheslines. White shirts tell us one thing, denim shirts another. Blue jeans and khaki pants are redolent of grease monkeys and farmers. Tee shirts flex their decaled chests and share their messages with anyone who will stop and look.

And then, of course, there’s the underwear. Boxers or undies, there’s usually something shy and small about underwear. It doesn’t move freely in the breezes that send the other clothes dancing. It looks mildly embarrassed, as if a public appearance wasn’t what it had in mind.

Clotheslines can be very beautiful. They’re enlivened by the wind and sun like ships at sea. In their careful arrangements we see the handiwork of women with bags of clothespins and baskets of cold damp cloth balanced on one hip on a lovely Monday morning (or any day of the week in these lax times). The sheets go up, the towels follow, the perfect cheerful clothes of families, telling stories she doesn’t know she’s sharing with everyone, anyone who will stop and look.