Day 15: I-Books

The things we use in the company of others are fraught with multiple and ambivalent—if not at times wholly contradictory—meanings. The pillows we strew on the couch, the stack of hand-towels in the bathroom, a dish to leave olive pits in, the music we play, these are possessions we set out for the physical and emotional comfort of our friends and guests, a way to show them we think they’re special, to celebrate their presence in your house, to create an environment in which they feel at ease. At the same time, of course, they say something about us, our taste and generosity and sophistication (or lack thereof). They attest to the person we are or want to be, which of course is not the always the same thing. The greater the discrepancy between the two, the more inauthentic the object and the more visible the pretension.

Sandra Bowden, Book of Nails, 2003

Sandra Bowden, Book of Nails, 2003

There is perhaps no greater touchstone of inauthenticity than the coffee table book. Ostensibly a means to spark conversation but more than often not serves to allow guests to occupy themselves while the host absents himself to stir the risotto or refresh drinks, these large-format, visual-heavy albums are also a witness to the interests, education and indeed character of the host. Or what we know he isn’t but desperately desires to be.

Of all the books that line the bookcases and shelves in the house and could have been selected, these four or five occupy the most highly charged and prominent of positions in the entire house—directly in the middle of the company that has gathered for the evening, squarely set on display between guest and host. Of all the books that the host could have pulled from the bookshelves or bookcases, these few are the ones that say, “Yes, this is me. I find these books so interesting that I think you might find them interesting as well.” These are canonical books of identity. They remind me of oversized missals on the altars of the Catholic churches I frequented as a child.

It is never a chance selection. It is always a more or less deliberately curated exhibition of one’s self, whether actual or desired. They are meant to be viewed, much in the same way as a valuable illustrated manuscript in a museum case is intended to be approached. The priceless manuscript gives us one, presumably characteristic, look at the contents of the entire book; the coffee table book presumably affords us insight into the character of our host.

They are not books to be read but leafed through while the tea brews or in the intermission between cocktails and soup, which is why the genre is often heavily dependent on visuals and light on text (though not always; my friend Nikolas’s coffee table is indeed his own reading table, more private than public perhaps, and as fascinating as the man himself). They are books for the eye rather than the mind, lushly if not beautifully photographed albums luxuriously printed on glossy high-quality paper and covering topics ranging from the expected, like the aerial photographs of Our Planet Earth and illustrated histories of rock bands to the more esoteric titles of The Art of Boxing and Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s and Science on the Nanoscale to the enigmatically arcane Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World Most Colorful Despots. Not to mention such meta-coffee table books as The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book, a history of the genre told by a pair of design curators, and the shamelessly opportunistic Books Do Furnish a Room.

I think I have a relatively honest coffee table. But I can’t help thinking, perhaps there is a bit of posturing in the selection of books I have laid out. In my defense they are nearly all catalogs of exhibitions that I have actually been to and that intrigued me: the Palle Nielsen Orfeus and Eurydice series of prints, an Atget restrospective, Demand at the Nationalgallerie. And, ironically enough, given this project, the catalog which accompanied the centenary celebration of the Deutsche Werkbund that was held in Munich in 2007 but more so of the now iconic objects the Werkbund produced in its hundred-year history . Parr and Badget’s marvelous history of the photobook comes the closest to pretense. I know much much less about the history of photography than a book like this might indicate.

Although relatively honest, these books don’t make my guests feel more comfortable or trigger talk (how do you strike up a conversation on “Art Between Traces of the Past and Utopian Futures” anyway?). They perhaps say more about what I want them to think of me. As I said, they are not particularly inauthentic possessions. I do care about what these books talk about and I still read through them on occasion. But I am obviously neither a well-read connoisseur nor a professional in art, and certainly art is not theonly thing I’m interested in. And art in Berlin even less so.

If I really were focused on my guests and wanted to provide them with something entertaining to pass the time with or begin a strand of conversation with, I’d have laid out the richly illustrated Mediterranean Islands (replete with crowd-factor rankings) and Beefcake: Muscle Magazines of America 1950-1970 or the even more provocative album of Tom of Finland drawings. But instead I have exhibition catalogs.

We use our possessions to construct and refine our sense of self. It’s not all we use, of course. Values, memory, desire and neurosis are also instrumental in cultivating our identity. But possessions matter.

I recently ran across a curious experiment in self-perceptions that Russel Belk described in his fascinating essay on “Possessions and the Extended Self” (which I’ll be coming back to in a future post). Conducted by Ernst Prelinger and written up in theJournal of Psychology as “Extension and Structure of the Self”, the experiment asked subjects to sort a collection of 160 objects on a continuum between “self” and “not self”. Genital organs and the skin proved unsurprisingly to have the highest rankings of “self”, followed by psychological processes such as conscience and physiological ones such as pain and itching and then attributes such as occupation and then, before valuesand abstract ideas, “possessions and productions” (the latter including effluents such as perspiration).

If possessions are intricately involved in our construction of an extended self, then dispossession is logically an ebbing or constriction of the self. It is not coincidental that prisons, monasteries and mental hospitals strip the inmate or applicant of his possessions, including in some circumstances even physical “possessions” such as hair, in an attempt to diminish the individuality of the inductee. The simple answer to the question, what is left of Nathan after what Nathan owns is gone is… less of Nathan. Provided, of course, that what is lost, discarded or expropriated is a possession with which I have used or now use to construct my identity. Most of the objects I have rid myself of so far have been relatively inconsequential to identity, so perhaps nothing has really been lost of Nathan.

Today’s loss is no different, I’m afraid. I am relieving myself only of the temptations to pretension: a hardcover copy in French of volume 5 in Joann Sfar’s graphic novel series on the Rabbi’s cat, Jérusalem d’Afrique, which, while a nice reminder of a visit to the Brussels Musée de la Bande Dessinée suggests a proficiency in the language I do not possess; an edition of the scores for Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (I don’t play music), and The New Cook, a chic minimalist volume of meals I will never cook. These possessions, which I will give to friends, are easy to disown. But I am bound to run out of the inconsequential and inauthentic, those possessions in which I have invested little of myself and which can easily be dislodged from my home without compromising the self I have constructed within this home. And then things will get very interesting.

  1. Nikolas said:

    “A relatively honest coffee table”! How delightfully -and characteristically- calvinist of you! 🙂
    (And, while I am of course flattered and pleased, I regret to say that my coffee table also carries -quite simply- coffee table books, and private reading only when I happen to read lying on the adjacent couch – rarely, nowadays… :-))

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