Affinities: Arranging One’s Books, No. 3 (The Reading Room)

Affinities, Arranging One's Books

March 18th, 2012

Imagine a library from which you can take any book and, instead of having the “privilege” of checking it out for a prescribed number of days, you are asked (though not obliged) to simply replace it with another book. Any other book, more than one book, or no book at all. Imagine a library which is not organized by institutional and commercial efficiencies (categories, genres, alphabet); rather, its arrangement is in constant flux, shaped by many hands, by all kinds of unpredictable (or even indiscernible criteria). Imagine whatever intention any one person might exercise, that “temptation toward an individual bureaucracy: one thing for each place and each place for its one thing, and vice-versa” (George Perec) is subverted by someone else’s whim, someone’s else’s sense of purpose, or lack thereof. Imagine, then, a library that is a collaborative act among strangers, a library in which randomness drives its order, in which that (relentlessly shifting) order renders the invisible visible, reorients, reveals the unexpected. Imagine a library that metamorphoses, beginning with a very specific collection of books that transforms into an almost entirely different collection (and which, if any, books remain constant). Imagine a library that contracts and swells. Imagine what books others might bring. Imagine what you might find—the single book as well as strange and illuminating juxtapositions between them. Imagine a library as if it were a living organism. Imagine how that might transform what the book itself can be.

Again George Perec (from “The Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books”): “Like the librarians of Babel in Borges’s story, who are looking for the book that will provide them with the key to all the others, we oscillate between the illusion of perfection and the vertigo of the unattainable. . . . In the name of the unattainable, we would like to think that order and disorder are in fact the same word, denoting pure chance.”

This is what came to mind when I was first told about The Reading Room at the Berkeley Art Museum. Envisioned by the poets Ramsay Bell Breslin and Lynn Hejinian, The Reading Room is a temporary library that opened January 15 (and will exist until June 17) as a collection of books of poetry, experimental fiction, books of essays about language and art (all published by three East Bay small presses, including Kelsey Street Press, Atelos Books, and Tuumba Press, and by independent presses represented by Small Press Distribution), free for the taking—though the space invites people to linger, look, read and listen. Its initial arrangement (described in more detail below by Breslin) was attentive to the visual and tactile (color, texture, size governing the order as well as constraints like the palindrome or an imitation of piano keys) in order to reorient the visitor the physicality of the book, its objectness, its beauty. (The image above and those below by Sibila Savage were taken early on.) It is a leap to imagine what the library will become: this is such an extraordinary experiment to see how human intervention (driven by generosity, curiosity, play, politics, self-interest, for example), whether with or without intention, will shape a new thing, create a different creature.

I hope to be able to post images of the library during its metamorphosis. While I’ll be going to Berkeley and will take pictures myself, if any readers of the Siglioblog want to send in photos they take, email me at publisher(at) and I’ll post them (I’ll definitely want to know the date the photo was taken!). I’ll also look forward to hearing if and how the library revealed something unexpected to you.

—Lisa Pearson, publisher, Siglio



Ramsay Bell Breslin (co-publisher of Kelsey Street Press) says this about The Reading Room:

As one circumnavigates the space, The Reading Room itself can be “read” visually, beginning with the text-image art works by George Schneeman, in collaboration with poets Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, and Lewis MacAdams and moving on to the books themselves. Because The Reading Room is in a museum, the books have been organized visually in ways that foreground the books-as-objects. Originally, the books were organized by scale (from short and narrow to tall and wide) and then by color to create a visual poem whose primary form is the palindrome. (A palindrome is a pattern that repeats in reverse.) For example, on the top shelf of the first bookcase, the books’ leaves face forward, displaying subtle variations on the theme of white and cream; on the second shelf you see the spines of these same books, which represent one copy each of the books that appear elsewhere in the exhibit as a whole. A few bookcases later, a pattern of color and scale emerges as multiple copies of each book repeats with variations that move forward as well as backwards, within and across the bookshelves, all the while growing in scale and depth until you reach a shelf in which the books are further arranged to resemble piano keys. The books-as-keys play with the depth of the shelves to create a sculptural composition. If scanned (as you would words in a poem), the rhythm established by the pattern of books-as-keys begins, at some point, to syncopate. One effect of these variations-on-a-palindrome is that the authors’ names appear at different locations throughout the room. In this way, no one book or author is privileged over another.

By displaying aspects of book production generally overlooked by libraries and bookstores, The Reading Room subtly challenges commercial and institutional conventions of book display, including museum display, by permitting the beauty and order of these books to gradually become unsettled over time as books are pulled from their rows and replaced. Both in its art and its use value, The Reading Room reminds us of what there is to enjoy about print books that can only ever be approximated by digital reading devices: books are material objects we finger and hold in our hands. The Reading Room also holds the potential for a rich and dynamic cultural exchange of art and ideas: by inviting visitors to take and replace older books of value to keep and/or share with family and friends, the project promotes human value (generosity) over commercial gain. It does this by encouraging the natural recycling by readers of books they love.

All photographs by Sibila Savage for the Berkeley Art Museum. Thanks to Larry Rinder, too.

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