Tags for: Making Reading Cool Again
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Making Reading Cool Again

Heather Saunders, Director of Ingalls Library
May 1, 2020
Woman Reading on Lawn , c. 1970. Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). 2011.321

There’s an uncanny familiarity to Art/Life (1983–84), the year-long performance in which Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montana were together but constantly apart, avoiding direct contact even while attached by an eight-foot rope. Like the restrictions placed on society by COVID-19, the prospect seems absolutely unbearable. However, documentation of the performance suggests a source of solace: look how calm the participants are when they are reading.

Art/Life One Year Performance 1983–1984 (Rope Piece_Image), Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montana. Image source.

Speaking of not touching, filmmaker John Waters advised against spontaneous romantic liaisons with anyone not having books at their residence, saying we should make books cool again. As a library director, I want to revise this call to action to make reading cool again, as books are functioning as décor, trophies, makeshift computer stands, and more. A report released in March declared: “Troubling trends: An international decline in attitudes toward reading.” However, weeks of self-isolation are prompting families, couples, and individuals to plumb their homes for activities to occupy themselves.

Woman Reading to Two Children, 1824–25. Francisco Goya (Spanish, 1746–1828). Lithograph; image: 11.5 x 13 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1998.171

If you’ve exhausted your bookshelves, consider Bernard Berenson’s One Year’s Reading for Fun (Knopf, 1960). This memoir about the Jewish art historian’s entrapment in fascist Italy during WWII is available through the Internet Archive, a not-for-profit digital library. To learn more about their National Emergency Library, which features CMA publications, see this post. In addition to taking a deep dive into publications written by or featuring the CMA, check out these great reads:

Robert Frank’s The Americans

Fight your 2020 cabin fever by living vicariously through this cross-country photo essay from the mid-1950s. This project is featured in the CMA’s exhibition PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet. Later editions featured an introduction by Jack Kerouac. One of the later editions is also exhibited in PROOF, courtesy of the Ingalls Library. The image below, which is the first in the book, may bring to mind contemporary social distancing scenes like recent images of Italians singing on their balconies.

Parade — Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955, printed 1968–75. Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924–2019). Gelatin silver print; 20.6 x 31.4 cm.

William Morris’s The Art and Craft of Printing

This book includes a posthumously published firsthand account by William Morris (1834–1896) of his adventures in bookmaking, informed by instinct and extensive research. If you’re interested in viewing any of the full run of his private press, the Kelmscott Press, when the museum reopens, please contact the Ingalls Library. In the meantime, the digital experience is terrific: the zoom feature of the Internet Archive interface allows for an enhanced appreciation of decorative elements like Morris’s intricate botanical borders.

Michel Foucault’s La peinture de Manet

When I taught art history, reading student answers about philosopher Michel Foucault was the highlight of marking exams. His explanation of modern art as a rupture is articulated so clearly that students not only comprehended and retained the ideas but applied them to modern works beyond those Foucault discussed. Through this presentation, or the English translation (Manet and the Object of Painting), readers of all levels of knowledge about art should be quick studies in how works like Félix Vallotton’s The Bistro push against past conventions. Vallotton’s impenetrable crowd of cropped figures facing in different directions is sure to strike you as radical.

The Bistro, c. 1895. Félix Valloton (French, 1865–1925). Oil on canvas; 30.5 x 40.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Nancy F. and Joseph P. Keithley Collection Gift, 2020.114

John Berger’s To the Wedding

Writer and art critic John Berger (of Ways of Seeing renown) traces the routes of family members racing to Venice for a wedding, a joyous occasion tempered by the threat of AIDS. This beautifully crafted novel is a tribute to the importance of human connection in anticipation of loss. Since it was critiqued by parents of high school students in California in 2011, the novel’s access from within that very state (the Internet Archive is headquartered in San Francisco) is exciting to see.

Initiatives like the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library are vital because not everyone has equal access to cultural resources. Comedian Trevor Noah has observed that apps like Zoom make us aware of who has bookshelves. Noah’s award-winning autobiography, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, addresses his impoverished upbringing, so his quip reminded me of something else. In 2016, the year before I joined the CMA, I attended a panel about Little Free Libraries at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) as part of the Art as Social Force series. Little Free Libraries (LFLs) fill an important gap because many residents don’t own books and don’t live within reach of a public library. At the event, Eno Laget, who designed a Little Free Library in Detroit, shared that 47 percent of adults in the city are functionally illiterate, and he saw LFLs as a way to begin to break down barriers.

That got me thinking about the historical connection between access and literacy. In Western society, books weren’t readily available to the masses prior to the invention of the printing press. (For a history of printing, click here). Prior to that time, commoners tended to own devotional texts, like medieval books of hours, but not books for recreational consumption. That didn’t necessarily mean they had the ability to read those texts. For example, for books of hours that were especially popular from the 1300s to 1600s, semiliterate people could memorize key passages, find a prayer by the corresponding image, and follow along. With the Industrial Revolution, free time became a concept familiar beyond the upper class, thanks to efficiencies captured by artists like Joseph Mallord William Turner. Efficiency was widespread: education also became regulated, leading to increased literacy and a demand for texts. It followed that artists began to depict leisure reading.

Saint Barbara, folio 191v from Hours of Queen Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Spain, c. 1500. Master of the First Prayer book of Maximillian (Flemish, c. 1444–1519) and Associates. Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; 22.5 x 15.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 1963.256.191.b

As I rifled through boxes recently to find my own leisure reading material, I found my VHS copy of Pleasantville, a film in which Reese Witherspoon plays Jennifer, a too-cool-for-school teen. She and her brother must come to terms with being zapped into a television show from the 1950s. As the townspeople experience personal growth, the books on the library shelves transition from blank tomes to their proper state. In lockstep with her fellow citizens, Jennifer finds herself, through literature. We can all be enriched and transported through the seemingly simple act of reading. As Little Free Library artist Debora Grace commented, reading is “like swallowing universes.”

Photo: Heather Saunders reading John Corso Esquivel’s Feminist Subjectivities in Fiber Art and Craft (Routledge, 2019). Her review will appear in the next edition of ARLIS/NA Reviews https://www.arlisna.org/publications/reviews published by the Art Libraries Society of North America.