Wednesday, April 20, 2005

National Library Week betrayed


I had long wondered about the source of the above illustration. A photocopy of had it been passed out in a graduate seminar I took on concepts and properties, though I don’t recall its (the illustration's) purpose. But its apparent topic—how to understand the formal variance of functional objects over time—is fascinating enough on its own, and it is impressive as a piece of visual organization of information.

Thus, I was elated when, searching for a receipt yesterday morning, I found among old notes a citation of the source: The Critique of the Theory of Evolution by Thomas Hunt Morgan. But without access to a university library, where was I to find a copy?

Let us rewind a few weeks.

Hilary and I discovered that a local artist was leading a large-scale art project in which artists would be permitted pick through the books in storage at the Portland Public Library and take home whichever ones they’d like to create "artworks" out of. The modified books were to be returned to the library, where they would be on display beginning April 16. (Note: National Library Week was April 10-16.)

Naturally, we were incensed by this project, and we wrote letters of protest to the library. Without judging the art of book modification (which I’d be inclined to judge negatively), I think it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t belong to the mission of a public library to sponsor the destruction of information. To preserve information for possible future scholars—even if those scholars never arrive—might be a more appropriate aim. If more space is needed and some books just have to go, a library could donate the books to another organization, hold a book sale, put out free bins—all of these options preserve the information for at least one more potential reader. (And simply putting the books in the Dumpster would at least have been a more tasteful means of destruction than turning them over to self-styled artists.)

Now, at the time, I thought that my main argument against the project was rather abstract, since the possibility that some future scholar would seek one of the books in question seemed vanishingly small.

Back to yesterday afternoon. "Long Overdue: Book Renewal" had gone up, and the products were on display in a special room of the library. (Posters advertising the show are all over town, bearing the lame slogans "THIS IS NOT A POSTER" (false) and "THIS IS NOT A BOOK" (false of the poster, true of the books). Riffing on Ce n'est pas une pipe—especially when no interesting questions about representation are posed—is one of my pet peeves, but this is a minor matter compared to what the posters advertise. (This complaint registered, I invite readers to share "This is not a..." scenarios of their own invention in the comments; no interesting questions about representation need be posed.))

Hilary and I were at the library for other reasons, but we thought we’d challenge ourselves and check out the exhibit. I was a little bummed out to see that the pages of a nice hardcover Gulag Archipelago had been glued together and carved out, but the book’s a dime a dozen, and I figured the library had probably bought some new translation with added scholarly goodies, so I could handle it.

Hilary picked up an attractive and slim orange volume, and I read the spine with horror. It was The Critique of the Theory of Evolution by Thomas Hunt Morgan, the very book whose identity I had accidentally retrieved just that morning! I flipped it open and instantly found my array of pole arms; next to it was glued a National Geographic-style photograph of an Arab with a machine gun. Dozens of other photos were installed throughout the book. (I wish now I had looked at them; at the time I was only interested in finding those illustrations that were still intact.) The artist, Wolfe, had inked his own title onto the title page; I don’t recall what it was, but it concerned Hiroshima and September 11 (an absurd comparison, from any political perspective).

Wolfe has taken The Critique of the Theory of Natural Selection (minimally $40 at addall) out of circulation; I wish him or her ill.


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