The bookstore I work at is never dusted. First, the task is inexhaustible and second, it is assumed that the single book dishevels at least the worst layer of dust, through being pulled out and turned in the air by the many hands of customers on a daily basis. The dustiest areas are those that for some reason, lack of interest, are left mostly untouched. Many things there, most remarkably the handling of information and systems, are, like the dust, left to largely physical systems of passage, taken on and maintained by few hands and eyes. The bookstore stretches across four floors and a basement. At our annual stocktaking we find wallets and glasses forgotten by customers behind the rows of books. The digital system we operate cannot tell us what we have in stock, but only determine when and in what amount something has arrived. Determining whether it is likely to find a certain book is a speculative matter, requiring a certain level of familiarity with how the books move about. The organization is systematic, which to an uninitiated eye doesn’t necessarily show itself at first. Each division contains increasingly specialized sub-branches, tree-like structures, which, however, are in constant change generated by the information itself and the few people managing it.
Apart from books themselves, there is a flush of paper through the store, by which our internal structure and communication travel around the levels and departments. We pile up reused paper, torn into smaller squares, and move them to this or that place, which indicates their destination. From there they are since picked up by people from the other floors or by our driver, who takes them to the external stock. Almost the entire space is mapped out in irregular geometrical shapes and diagonal lines connect them in a crisscross. If I close my eyes I see all the lines on the back of my eyelids, almost like a retinal burn.
At night, I used to dream of being sent to the basement to search for something, working under time pressure, and found myself entering a labyrinth that I walked deeper and deeper into, while the noises of the store and the voices of my colleagues faded behind me. In another recurring dream the bookstore was covered in sand and I was ordered to systematically turn the top layer, which was a darker colour than the lighter sand beneath, of the entire sand-covered surfaces. Working at the store feels like playing a memory-game in space. Becoming familiar with the systems and being able to navigate them is only possible through operating within them and simultaneously take part in creating them. Memory is key. I’ve often thought of drawing a map of the store from memory, which I’m convinced I’d be able to do in quite detail. What would it be a map of? Apart from being a functioning bookstore, the shop also serves as something like a personal archive for the founder, Walther König, who despite being 80 years old, is still around every day. He hides books in dark corners, moves stuff around endlessly, sometimes he even locks himself in the store on Sundays, when it is otherwise closed, to arrange and rearrange undisturbed.
(Even I have a secret corner; a small pile of books that I have gathered, hidden away in the shadow of a low hanging shelf in the basement).
The idea of a system based on the memory of a few individuals, an archive that is so conditioned by its very physical quality, brings me to a book by Danish artist and writer Amalie Smith: The Anatomy of Reading. In May 2012 Smith was slowly recovering from a severe concussion, that had made it impossible for her to read for a period of three months. The Anatomy of Reading gathers her notes, organized as a diary, on beginning to read again. She traces the relationship that the rather mental activity of reading has to its physical conditions; speech, books, libraries, calligraphy to typography and back, accessibility, the digitalization of the book economy, the archive etc. and through describing the anatomy of reading she tries to define its body. I read the book as a teenager and parts of it have haunted me ever since. Last year I consulted the book again to find a passage that I kept returning to in my mind: about the movement of the tongue while reading. I remembered something quite fascinating about how the activity of looking at letters and assembling words via memory of phonetics would send tiny signals to the muscles that control the tongue, so that the tongue of a reading person would move very subtly in accordance with the path that the eyes trace across the page. I went back and forth through the pages many times but didn’t find the passage in the book.
While searching I came across a passage about morphemes and memory, that made me wonder about the relationship between recollection through images, sound and movement;
Oral activity helped the reader to hold in
short-term memory the fraction of a word or
phrase that had already been decoded
phonetically while the cognitive task of
morpheme and word recognition, necessary
for understanding the sense of the initial
fragment, proceeded through the decoding of
a subsequent section of text. The aural
retention of inherently ambiguous fragments
often was essential until a full sentence
When we look for a certain book at the bookstore we often look up an image of its cover which is surprisingly much more effective compared to linking a title to a memory of having previously seen or handled a book.
It feels almost as if an image connects directly to muscle memory.
I imagine that seeing something out of the corner of your eye, without actively looking at it, though unconsciously registering it, is only possible with images and not with text, since the act of reading requires more active decoding and assembling. I wonder about the evocative ability of sound, in relation to oral reading versus silent internal reading; do I remember a title or a sentence differently if it has been spoken to me or by me – if it has become muscle memory? Smith talks about an eye-voice span, that opens up when the eyes run ahead of the voice:
(…) by the end of the Middle Ages word
separation is re-introduced, now the reader
can make use of the parafoveal field of vision
(which is wider than the focus field), which
opens up an eye-voice span: ‘the variable
quantity of text that a reader has decoded but
not yet pronounced during oral reading’. Voice
and vision are separated, and the voice can
become an inner voice, silent speech.
Of course we do organize the books alphabetically within their sub-categories, which means that the bookstore is full of several alphabets, running in reading direction – many separate shelves beside each other, that can be read like pages. Yet, how I recall the placement of a certain book has more to do with a spatial and visual memory than with its connection to an alphabetic letter. As a part of her recovery from the concussion, Smith visited an optometric technician to do stereopsis exercises, who told her about how the reading ability of children is linked to their body-awareness:
She shows me a schema with rows of signs
constructed around a basic form consisting
of two circles vertically crossed through,
which deviate from each other by missing
something. She uses the schema to do
exercises with children who have difficulties
remembering direction in writing, swap
around d and b or read from right to left.
The signs are a simple choreographic notation:
The upper circle directs the arms and the
lower the legs. (…) E.g. Lifting both arms,
saying: ‘Both arms’, lifting right leg and
saying: ‘Right leg’. The rhythm is important.
It is impossible for me to remember the placement of a certain alphabetic letter without running through all the previous letters, beginning from A, almost singing it in the melodic rhyme through which it is taught to children. This goes for remembering in general; I make up rhymes or little songs if I have to juggle several things in my mind at once. I tie them up like pearls on strings. The alphabet is a specialization, an organization of sounds, an attempt to systematize the sonic, in service of function and sufficiency – Smith quotes Johanna Drucker from her book Typografiprosjektet: ‘The foundational principle of alphabetic writing is to represent a single sound in spoken language by a single letter. (…)
The phonetic principle is the unique characteristic of the alphabet.’ Representation however, in the case of the alphabet, seems not to be sufficient by referring to or pointing towards, but is sometimes still dependant on the support or accompaniment of sound.
In 2001 Baker, writer and library activist, published an exhaustively researched non-fiction book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper in an attempt to uncover the fate of thousands of books and newspapers that were replaced and often destroyed during the microfilming boom of the 1980s and 1990s in libraries and archives. Baker has, as Smith in The Anatomy of Reading, dealt with the condition of books and the archive after digitalization and investigates the gap between a digital copy and a material copy, the connection between knowledge and matter and the loss involved in non-embodied information. However, where Smith attempts to circumscribe a body more abstractly, Baker is very concrete and confrontational in calling out how specific institutions and libraries have mistreated their archival responsibility by getting rid of irreplaceable originals, in favour of technological replacements, that have since proven to be even less durable.
The title of the book Double Fold refers to a test used by librarians and archivists to determine the brittleness and usability of paper. The corner of a page of a book or newspaper is folded down and then back in the opposite direction, one double fold. The action is repeated until the paper breaks or is about to break, which yields a fold number. Baker conducts the test himself on an old newspaper and the corner breaks off after just one fold; but he is able to turn a page 800 times without damaging it.
I like to imagine Baker turn the page of the newspaper, back and forth and back and forth, while having to count each movement without losing concentration. Normally, turning the page is an activity that happens almost automatically, that one abstracts away in order not to break the illusion of continuity. Sometimes though, I notice myself fondling the edge of the page to prepare for turning the page. While moving through a book the weight slowly shifts from the right hand to the left, and thus the time of the book manifests itself materially in the hands of the reader. About the materiality of the book Smith writes:
Rasmus Fleischer in Boken about the
materiality of the book and spatial memory:
‘Genom at använda handen för att vända
bokens sidor integreras minnet av orden i en
rumslig dimension.’ [Through using the hand
to turn the pages of the book, the memory of
the words are integrated in a spatial
Walther König only reluctantly gets rid of books he considers of quality. As much as he runs a business, he is deeply entangled in the life of books in all their other respects than the economical. One day while I was working in the department with reduced books, he came around and an edition of several volumes of the collected letters of an old painter caught his eye. ‘How much do we sell this for?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know’, I said, ‘let’s have a look’. As soon as he discovered the 25 euro price-tag written with pencil on the side of the box, he shook his head and said ‘That’s too much of a pity, too much of a pity’ and told me to take it away. He went outside, looking slightly distressed, and began digging through the boxes of very reduced discarded books and began piling up books in his arms. Last time he went on holiday his son Franz, who is now running the bookstore, used the rare occasion to clean up the basement. Books pile up and take up space and space is expensive.
Smith wonders about the criteria by which books are being archived or preserved in a time where books no longer necessarily take up space and what that means for their distribution:
‘Bibliotopia’: the dream of total archiving, and
of total accessibility. All books are accepted
into the archive. The economical threshold of
the printing process as guarantor of quality.
But what decides if something is a book in the
digital library. (…) Rasmus Fleischer’s Boken:
The three-dimensionality of the book, that the
fact that it ‘äger rum’ [owns space] (owns
space/takes place), guarantees a selection:
‘Ännu viktigare är att varje bok har en början
och ett slut. Varje enskild bok har ett
begränsat omfång som på ett ungefär kan
avgöras genom en blick på bokens yttre.
Likaså ryms bara ett begränsat antal böcker
i varje enskild bokhylla. Därför garanterar
böckerna i kraft av sin materialitet, ett urval.’
[Of even more significance is that every book
has a beginning and an end. Every single
book has a limited extent that can
approximately be determined by a glance at
it’s outside. Just as only a limited amount of
books fit into each bookshelf. Therefore,
books, by means of their materiality,
guarantee a selection.] †
Exactly that is what is interesting about the bookstore, that it represents a selection – even though a selection is never neutral. The selection at the bookstore is personal and is the product of a history embedded in a specific place and time and in a local community. And as much as
it is a selection, a certain amount of trust in the material itself and its self-generative order, the right amount of forgetfulness, things momentarily disappearing from sight, a slow-working flow is kept in motion, that produces still new connections.
† All quotes from The Anatomy of Reading (Læsningens Anatomi, 2012) are in my translation.