Friday, October 27, 2017

No Accounting for Taste

I tend to avoid library book sales. Too many temptations. Too much jostling. But now that my primary source of books, the Ridgedale Library de-aquisition shop, has been closed down to accommodate a huge remodeling project, the rivulet of enticing volumes entering the house has become a mere trickle at best.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. In any case, I sometimes pay full price for a book, for example The Scandinavians by Thomas Ferguson. I have also been known to order a specific book used, once it's been out for a few years and the price has dropped, for example Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias. Then again, I more than occasionally pull a book off the shelves to read that I bought years ago, for example Stendhal's The Red and the Black. And I often check books out of the library, for example Ange Mlinko's recent book of poems, Distant Mandate.

In any case, it was entirely by chance that we happened by the Golden Valley Library the other day to return a few books and came upon its annual sale. The pricing was simple: $5 for a shopping bag of books, any size or binding. Who could resist?

We came away with a single bag, prudently, and it wasn't even full. Here are the items I now remember.

The Road to Delphi—Michael Wood
A history of oracles, including the famous one at Delphi.

On the Natural History of DestructionW.S. Sebald
Essays by the German master about bombing during WWII, I think.

The Appointment—Herta Müller
She won the Nobel Prize; maybe she's good.

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma QueenMary Norris
I read it; I reviewed it; now I own it.

Arthur PennRobin Wood
On the title page Igmar Bergman is quoted as saying, "Arthur Penn is one of the world's great directors." He was perhaps the most interesting, and certainly one of the most renowned, film directors working in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. His memorable string includes The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice's Restaurant, Little Big Man, Night Moves, and Missouri Breaks, a vastly underrated Western starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. I could easily see this little hardcover (six inches square) sitting on the shelf next to a film bio of the same dimensions I already own called Hawks on Hawks.

GauchosAldo Sessa
Another little hardcover, this one full of color photos. I can see now that it isn't worth much.

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf
I have never succeeded in finishing a book by Virginia Woolf. I have a yellowing mass-market-sized copy of this one in the basement. Maybe the trade format will help me as I row out to the lighthouse?

A Postmodern ReaderNatoli and Hutcheon
Why would anyone want to buy a textbook of a phony and out-of-date intellectual fashion? Well, I might learn something, and once I do, I might change my view completely.

The Third Reich—Roberto Bolaño
I have never liked this Chilean novelist. Let's give him another shot.

A trio of novelsMaguib Mahfouz
I'll never go to Cairo. This may be a close as I get.

Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore—Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone
This is a chatty, lightweight account of a married couple who loves books, bookstores, bookfairs, libraries, and the people one meets at such places. Written in the first-person plural.

The Book of Kells
A small but  full-color paperback sampling of this classic.

A Reunion of Trees: The discovery of exotic plants and their introduction into North American and Europan landscapes—Stephern Spongberg
The subtitle says it all.

Taste: The secret meaning of things—Stephen Bayley
This British oversized paperback has a silly subtitle, but it looks interesting. Never having heard of Bayley, I googled his name and came up with a quote of his from an article in the Spectator:
"Terence Conran’s great achievement, although he does not perhaps see it this way, was to elevate design from an activity to a commodity. It was no longer something artisans did — whittling a stick, for example — but something that consumers could acquire. It was about fine things enjoyed by civilised folk. It was all about moral certainties and aestheticised hedonism."
Thumbing through the book later here at home, I came to the conclusion that there is little point in writing a history of taste. A history of art? Certainly. It would focus on work that has endured because it's beautiful. A history of styles? Of course. It would chronicle various movements, trends, and approaches to making art or designing elements of material culture such as the Rococo, Romanesque, and steamboat gothic, focusing on whatever has been truly novel, distinctive, or influential. (These two strands of history are usually explored at the same time, though they aren't quite the same thing, and the strands are seldom isolated.) But the word "taste" refers to the discernment with which an individual reacts to and makes use of various aspects of culture. In every era, some people have good taste, while others have bad taste. (It's always someone else.) And there's no way to write a history about that.
The salient point, I guess, is that Bayley's book, and others like it, focus not on art but on design. He is more interested in how a room is typically furnished during a certain era than on the most significant works of art or most brilliant design solutions the era produced. Thus, in the opening pages, he contrasts the taste exhibited in rooms furnished by Sigmund Freud, Nancy Mitford, and Walter Gropius, describing the first as "somber academism," the second as "snobbish antiquarian glamour," and the third as "a monument to functionalism and the machine aesthetic." 

To my mind, Freud's is far and away the most appealing of the three. Books are never somber, and the objects d'art on display in the glass cases against the wall in Freud's office appear to be pre-Columbian rarities rather than porcelain figurines from the eighteenth century. Gropius's office (which Bayley loves) strikes me as deadly and uninteresting. Dedicated to a severe and doctrinary  "style," It lacks nuance and character. Perhaps Freud would have called it "anal."

Looking up from the screen, I catch a glimpse of my own office style, which might fall under the rubric of "eclectic" or "shabby genteel," If it could he said to have a style at all. This expression--shabby genteel--dates back to Dickens' London and probably farther. Dickens wrote an entire essay about the concept, which you can read here. In our day, when gentility has largely lost its meaning, shabby genteel might almost be a synonym for "middle-class bohemian."

I see a birchbark basket made by an Ojibwe woman from the Mille Lacs Reservation (it holds the credit cards I seldom use, including one from every grocery store chain in California); a faux Talavera mug from Mexico containing quite a few pens that don't write; a Dutch painting of some fruit, artist unknown; and a reproduction of a Madonna and Child by Bellini (Yes, but which Bellini? Giovannir or Gentile?) 

The lamp (and dismal lampshade) belonged to my mother's parents. Here they are. (That's my mom, with her pants legs rolled up, next to grandpa. It might be the late 40s.)

In the office photo, a wooden table that my dad's grandparents might have brought over from Sweden is just out of view to the left. More recent Scandinavian design is represented by the scissors with the orange handles sticking out of the mug (Fiskars) and the white coffee mug on top of the manuscript (Littala). 

(Incidentally, the man who designed that mug, Harri Koskinen, was born in Karstula, Finland, in 1970. His web bio reports that Harry "strives to find solutions that are innovative for both the consumer and producer. He works with companies like Artek, Danese, Finlandia Vodka Worldwide, Issey Miyake, Montina, Muji, Genelec, O luce, Venini and Woodnotes." He received the Compasso d’Oro Award, one of Europe's most prestigious design awards,  in 2004.)

The "desk" itself is an old door resting on a file cabinet and a piece of discarded furniture from the defunct Bookmen warehouse.

A few of the authors I work with have come over to the house to sit beside me at the computer as we make corrections or fiddle with a cover. One poet, as she was leaving, couldn't help remarking, "Your house is so ... austere—in a nice way." That's not a word I would ever have chosen to describe it, but I think I know what she means. Our house dates from the late forties, when heavy oak buffets and thick woodwork were no longer in style. A dining room addition with a twelve-foot ceiling, set at a 45 degree angle from the kitchen, gives the back of the house a distinctly "modern" feel. To me the entire spread, which is dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows, seems light and yet earthy, like a Japanese temple made of wood and paper stuck off in the woods somewhere.

Bayley's book will be fun to peruse, but I fear there's going to be something missing. I came upon this passage on page 12, where he describes the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury's Letter Concerning Design (1714) as typical of the trend to associate "taste" with judgment. He writes:
 "It was published just as critical discernment was about to become an intellectual sport. The Letter was written when art had been separ­ated from its didactic and divine purposes and was well on the way to becoming a consumer product. At this moment taste did not have any particular values: it was only identified as a part of the human apparatus of discernment; you either had it or you didn’t and there was no question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’."
On the face of it, this is simply untrue. In those days, if you had "taste" in was ipso facto good taste. That's what the word referred to. If you were "without taste" you had bad or indiscriminate taste, not worth mentioning. Shaftesbury's signal contribution to philosophy was to suggest that our aesthetic sense and our moral sense are similar. They rely on discerning balance and proportion and are driven by both intellect and heart, though the values they seek out—beauty and goodness—are not the same.
Bayley writes, "When man replaced God as the chief object of study, it was inevitable that the idea of beauty deriving from divine inspiration was replaced by a more secular, even materialistic, notion of aesthetic satisfaction." He seems to see consumerism everywhere in modern life, failing to sufficiently acknowledge that among the vast array of choices now available to us, some will always have more value--be more beautiful or utilitarian--than others.  

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