(For this column, "The Bookshelf", CAA News invited members to reflect on three books, articles, or other textual projects that currently influence their art, work, or scholarship.)
Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002)
This book pops up on many lists like these, but I can’t help but include it here. Proust reminds his reader of the value of examining the most minute details of our experience; that meaning can be found in habit and ritual; and of the power of even everyday objects to transform life. Davis’s translation of his famously intricate sentence structure is superb but, inevitably, imperfect. There are parallels, I think, between the occasionally flawed process of translation and the novel’s theme of memory and the holes, static, and misperceptions memory leaves behind. I’m currently piecing together my own visual “translation” of the novel—complete with gaps and repetitions—with drawings of photocopies from all of the existing English translations.
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (New York: Da Capo, 1968)
For Proust it was the madeleine; for Talbot it was a bad drawing. In 1833, on his honeymoon in Italy, Talbot attempted to sketch the landscape surrounding Lake Como with the aid of a camera lucida. Unhappy with his “melancholy” results, he speculated “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible?” The Pencil of Nature, first published in 1844, chronicles the conception and development of what Talbot called “photogenic drawing.” I’m fascinated by Talbot because, unlike Daguerre and other contemporaries experimenting with photography, he recognized the significance his process would have for future modes of reproduction. His own “drawings” include facsimiles of printed pages and handwritten manuscripts. Talbot writes in the note to plate IX, Fac-Simile Of An Old Printed Page, “To the Antiquarian this application of the photographic art seems destined to be of great advantage.”
Kevin Kelly. “Scan This Book!” New York Times Magazine, May 14, 2006
Talbot couldn’t have been more prophetic. As we go about our daily business, modern-day scribes, both human and robotic, are scanning every scrap of written word—at least every scrap publishers will allow. One robot with a delicate pneumatic finger can scan one thousand pages an hour. Digitized texts can be put online, searched, and linked. Imagine a digital library of Alexandria where readers can share marginalia and create their own personal synopticons. Thirty-two million books in fifty petabytes. This mind-blowing article sits in my studio and taunts me as I doggedly go about making decidedly analog drawings. I can imagine a world in which the Prousts never have to leave their corked-lined rooms for the salon and the Talbots ask, “Why should it not be possible for all the world’s books to fit on my iPod?”
Column for CAA NEWS by Molly Springfield