Today I put down a book that took me almost five months to finish
Today I put down a book that took me almost five months to finish. A real book of tree pulp and ink. While reading it, I was also glancing at good natured discussions, via social media on the merits of digital readers versus “real” books made from paper and ink, as well as artists making hand made books. One dear friend is committed to the wood pulp camp. “Never will a Kindle cross my lap.” she sternly espoused.
My partner – a power reader is an equally committed fan of e-readers. And with good reason. We have been somewhat itinerant for the past 10 years, working variously around China with short stints in Thailand in Morocco. Such a lifestyle is hardly secure, the teaching profession in much of Asia, is just as much about keeping the students happy, with undeserved passing grades, as it is about teaching. There has been the occasional location where a more rigorous approach to education has been in place or put in place at my behest, but for the most part a teacher with integrity is rarely invited for a second contract, so the accruing of a shelf full of beloved books ends up as a labour, that needs posting back home to kind friends with spare storage or giving them away. Living in foreign lands, especially non-English speaking countries also makes it difficult to source reading material, even with the likes of Amazon, as postal services, for various reasons can be unreliable.
To the book that took so long. I think long and hard before I by ‘real” books, balancing the quality of the tome against the weight and sweat of carting and the possible heartbreak of loss. On this occasion I was in Hong Kong and surrounded by English language books on a range of Chinese artists, and artistic periods. Lush dust covers and richly coloured plates. I salivated over a number of potential buys, while feeling envious of a couple of American academics loading their arms. Should I — but it weighs a ton — will it fit in my bag, can I carry my bag with it in it, what about when we go home, I couldn’t leave it behind.
I perused a number of mild interest and equal temptation, and with discipline put them back on the shelf. Then came across “The Heart of Ma Yuan: The Search for a Southern Song Aesthetic.” I was immediately seduced, here was a book I’d been kind of looking for over the past 10 years, like foolish people consciously imagine their perfect partner.
I had quickly discovered a number of very good books on Chinese art history and indeed the Southern Song, since spending sometime in Hangzhou, the capital of the short lived but artistically brilliant dynasty, but nothing with a clear focus on the most famous painter of the period.
With sumptuous colour plates all set at the front, some unfolding like the hand scrolls they depicted, wide margins, a delicate font and detailed figures throughout, I had fallen in love, and as with falling in love, weight, size and cost were never a consideration.
Once into the text I was not disappointed. Richard Edwards, writes with a slow deliberate pace, keen to extract every detail from his subject. Complex in that art historical way, this suited me well. I am more of a close reader that a swallower of books whole — although I do delve into the pulp detective fiction for fun. I rationed my consumption, slow, slow and steady, here, like a fine wine, or richly flavoured meat, was something to be savoured.
I was beginning to understand why people, like my friend maintained their dedication to bound pages, it is clearly an erotic sensation, one brought about by the physical artifact and engagement with it. Not the glue sniffer’s high of the fresh ink, but in my case, at least, the regular interaction, the handling of an object that rewarded not just in the tactile but the intellectual and emotional too. And together amounted to a combined sensation that is unique to that combined engagement
By the time I turned the last page, I'd discovered a new insight into the Song Dynasty, the advent of the desire to paint an emotional response to landscape and indeed the picturesque, and the influence religion: Taoism and Buddhism and the royal court had on the art of the period. But most of all have a revitalised appreciation of the importance and pleasure of observing nature. The book had lost the ink fresh aroma, and a very slight hint of that library must was detectable. The slippery dust cover had been discarded, and my partner was referring to it as the bible, not for its contents, but due to the reverence with which I treated it. I had also learned how to manage its weight in my favoured reclined position, with the aid of a large pillow on my lap. Although at first I felt like a depressed teenage girl, I quickly realised that it saved my wrists and provided a suitable book rest between contemplative naps.
Recently my partner has bought me tablet, ostensibly as an e-reader and I am equally taken with high density images of my twitter feeds, and subscribed journals and magazines, but I look forward to reclining with a fine paper and ink read sometime.
David L Hume PhD 2015