Sunday, July 18, 2010

eyries of books

At the moment, my vote for the next project is the Claire Beynon poem... but here's my contribution, anyway. It's an excerpt from the Jeanette Winterson novel Art & Lies, and this particular chunk has haunted me for years. I chose an essay topic at Art School specifically to use this quote and the notion of springboarding from it to make a book some time appeals to me. It might also, if she hasn't encountered it yet, contribute to Ronnie's work. Plus, from the way JW talks about it (in the link above), I don't think we'd have trouble getting permission to use it in an artists' book context.

300BC. The Ptolemies founded the great library at Alexandria.

400,000 volumes in vertiginous glory.

The Alexandrians employed climbing boys much in the same way as the Victorians employed sweeps. Unnamed bipeds, light as dust, gripping with swollen fingers and toes, the nooks and juts of sheer-faced walls.

To begin with, the shelves had been built around wide channels that easily allowed for a ladder, but, as the library expanded, the shelves contracted, until the ladders themselves splintered under the pressure of so much knowledge. Their rungs were driven into the sides of the shelves with such ferocity that all the end-books were speared in place for nine hundred years.

What was to be done? There were scribes and scholars, philosophers and kings, travellers and potentates, none of whom could now take down a book beyond the twentieth shelf. It soon became true that the only books of any interest were to be found above shelf twenty-one.

It was noticed that the marooned rungs still formed a crazy and precarious ascent between the dizzy miles of shelves. Who could climb them? Who would dare?

Every boy-slave in Alexandria was weighed. It was not enough to have limbs like threads, the unlucky few must have brains of vapour too. Each boy had to be a medium through which much must pass and yet nothing be retained.

At the start of the experiment, when a book was required, a boy would be sent up to get it. This could take as long as two weeks, and very often, the boy would fall down dead from hunger and exhaustion.

A cleverer system seemed to be to rack the boys at various levels around the library, so that they could form a human chain, and pass down any volume within a day or so.

Accordingly, the boys built themselves eyries in among the books, and were to be seen squatting and scowling at greater and greater heights around the library.

A contemporary of Pliny the Younger writes of them thus:

[here is a chunk of latin that is never translated. JW at her most scholarly & impenetrable... but would look great in calligraphy, Ronnie!]

There is no system that has not another system concealed within it. [my emphasis] Soon the boys had tunneled behind the huge shelves and thrown up a rookery of strange apartments where beds were books and chairs were books and dinner was eaten off books and all the stuffings, linings, sealings, floorings, openings and closings, were books. Books were put to every use to which a book can be put as long as it is never read.

Jeanette Winterson, Art & Lies (London: Jonathon Cape, 1994), pp. 4-6.

Strikes me that this latter part is getting close to what happens when we stop using books for information... like the time I got a book page for a doily at the SLV cafe :)


ronnie said...

oh boy!

I've just staggered into the house after a frosty morning followed by kiddies soccer and the first thing I see is this!


I have no idea about the suitability/desirability this may hold for the masses (eg the next groupie book project folk) but my goodness it's a monster of a text and vision!

(and no I've not encountered this text previously duckie so I'm slightly drooling.... nothing to indicate that I may have rabies or the like.... but just a bit ravenously..... I will no doubt go trawl through the library to find a copy and see what journey it takes me on....but that's a personal aside I'm sure)


I think I need a nice cuppa and a wee lie down (I'm imagining all those young vapour-headed boys flopping/falling to their doom - in latin....ahhhh books - they have that affect on the best of us!)

corrrr blimey its a nice bit of kit this text!

tar for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I was one,like Ronnie, who said the Benyon piece cried out to be done.
And now this. Funny...I read Winterson, but was not then making books so didn't see it in this context.
But last week I finished a re-read of Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy and as I came to the final chapter I thought what an interesting subject Ptolemy was...

Woof! indeed...

Amanda said...

Oh wow! what an evocative and image-filled piece of writing! I'm a big JW fan & would be honoured to make a book inspired by her work, but how the heck to keep it simple when the material is sooooooooooooooo rich!

Carol said...

What a wonderful piece. Very visual, it gives the imagination such scope. So far, all terrific choices - this will be a tough one.

Angela said...

When I first read this text my head was spinning. Initially I thought there was so much going on that it was almost too complex to use. I re-read it a few times and gradually it started to sink in.

I started to really think about it last night and came up with an idea in bed (again!) I had to make sure to write it down in the notebook I keep by my bed because I knew I would forget it. I would really like to work with this text for the next project.