Trying to define our relationship with art without the look, feel of old books, records

Review Culture

December 03, 2006|By Karrie Higgins | Karrie Higgins,Special to the Los Angeles Times

New and Used

Marc Joseph and Damon Krukowski, editors

Steidl-Verlag / 184 pages / $29.70

First, the independent book and record stores disappeared from downtowns, shoved to the margins by chain retailers. With them went the eccentric window displays, the threadbare couches and the thrill of unearthing cultural artifacts that changed the way you saw everything. Fewer and smaller spaces in which vinyl addicts and bibliophiles could commune were left. Enter the MP3 and the e-book, threatening to reduce music and literature to mere content. Books and records as esthetic objects retreat to the far edges of culture. What does this mean? What is our relationship with these objects? These questions are at the heart of New and Used, with photographs by Marc Joseph and poetry and prose edited by him and Damon Krukowski.

Records and books were Joseph's entree into art. London Calling by the Clash - his first record purchase - forever changed him. But perhaps more profound was the experience of finding that record. In those hours spent studying record and book covers as a child in downtown Cleveland in the 1970s, he began to see the stores as galleries of public art that one could experience in wholly personal and private dimensions. Everything about New and Used points to this experience - even the design of the book itself.

The thing about New and Used is that you have to engage with it as a physical object. With its textured aquamarine cloth cover, it feels and looks like a library book - a public object. The oversize pages make it impossible to hold in one hand; you have to fully commit. Its text is set far off center, suggesting the shape of another, smaller book inside - a spectral presence that haunts the vast white spaces in the layout.

A photograph mounted on the front cover depicts three shelves of books with spines so richly colored that the arrangement looks designed, no accident of shelving. Even the titles seem more visual than literary, made for dramatic fonts: To Each a Penny, The Street of Strange Faces, Big Game. You want to reach up and take one for your own. Open New and Used and the frontispiece gives you a photograph of a green book, battered at the corners and plain as a library reference. It looks curiously like the book you hold in your hands.

Joseph's photographs of record covers look like specimens in a butterfly collection, precisely what he intends. That sense of distance lends them a Smithsonian-style authority as opposed to a Pop or Dada conflation of high and low. This is interesting, given the punk underpinnings of the work. But there is emotional depth here too, and even a touch of fetish. All of this conspires with the poems and essays to inspire serious reflections on the new and used in your own life.

"From the Interstitial Library Workbook" by Shelley Jackson is perhaps the most profound text in the volume. Jackson is known for her story "Skin," published in tattoo form on 2,095 human volunteers, and here the very notion of object-ness is challenged as Jackson asks us to consider as books "tears accidentally dropped into an ice cube tray refilled while reading someone else's diary, subsequently used to cool an unrefrigerated glass of white wine" and "a carcass with the entire text of The Merchant of Venice stamped on it; a steak from this carcass weighing exactly one pound." Though this might seem at odds with Joseph's photographs, it is a welcome challenge - asking readers to consider the collective value of new and used human experiences. If, as Jackson suggests, even our tears and zippers and mouths are books, then the distinction between books as objects and human experience collapses; books are life and vice versa.

As the first piece of text in the volume, Krukowski's "The Secret Museum" serves as both invitation and manifesto: "The horn on the Victrola looked inviting, so I jumped inside." Imagine jumping into the headphone jack on your iPod and you can see why the physical matters. Krukowski describes himself as "an aspect of that atmospheric scratch in the background," impossible without the needle and groove of a real record - impossible without its having been used. Where is that atmospheric scratch in the MP3? It would have to be an artificial artifact.

In "Southward Bound, Reads `Worstward Ho'," Lydia Davis explores the intimate physical exchange between reader and book: "Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read." This struggle to find intimacy echoes Jonathan Lethem's struggle with his bookstore owner boss who refused to let the clerks explore the basement, where an estate collection of H.P. Lovecraft's books supposedly lies. Which brings us back to those disappearing local stores.

"Where have all my favorites gone?" Bob Nickas asks in "Vinyl Junkies of the World Unite!" He remembers Sound & Fury on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where the store owner "would add a handwritten note to a price tag" to apologize for inflated prices. "That never happens at Borders!" We lose the place, we lose artifacts like the handwritten price tag notes and we lose an essential experience. Joseph's photographs of places like Jackpot Records and Powell's Books (both beloved in my city of Portland, Ore.) vividly depict what is lost.

This sense of loss permeates New and Used - the sense of clinging to something that has already disappeared. It makes me all the more grateful for the book's size, how I have to use both hands. And for the wide margins and white space on every page - how the empty spaces suggest the full ones, and how there is still some margin left for retreat.

Karrie Higgins is a writer living in Portland, Ore. She wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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