Reading old books in the tub

Posted January 5th, 2015by Nate Wessel

I want to continue this slowly ongoing discussion of museums in a slightly different direction by developing a thought that Jeremy and I were uncovering last week as we passed through Ohio. I’ll stand it up as a confident assertion: The highest possible good that a tangible piece of history can serve is to give itself bodily to the living and to be thus consumed and eventually destroyed.

Jeremy didn’t much like this idea as I had it last week, but I think he should so I’ll try to keep it standing if I can. Let’s poke it!

Now first of all, I’m not saying we should destroy art or history in any active sense. We shouldn’t take the Egyptian pharaohs ballroom dancing just for the laughs, nor should we recycle Starry Night as a cheap washrag. Nor for that matter should we make such meagre use of any thing we may possess be it old or not. Pianos for example are a sub-optimal source of firewood.

What I am saying, in a sense, is that you have to spend money to make money. Or more appropriately for this context, that living ecosystems are full of nutrient cycles, and that sequestering any one of those nutrients can immediately start to constrain the carrying capacity.

I am attacking a strawman though, because we do often acknowledge that we are consuming a historical resource for some present cultural purpose. The best examples are those displays in museums where the lights are dimmed when no one is standing in front of it. For some objects, certain very old books for example, light can fade and otherwise chemically alter the artifact. Every time someone walks in front of one of those displays, the light turns on, and somewhere in the metaphysical universe a little clock starts ticking again, counting toward the death of that object. When you step in front of that display, the object is slowly decaying, just for you. The same could be said in a similar way for most of the objects in a museum’s collection. Surely all of our renaissance paintings could keep longer in a salt mine than under our sweaty noses in a gallery! But we keep them out to our great expense.

As far as I can tell though, this tradeoff between present desires and future assets is not much discussed. Certainly not with the museum-going public it isn’t. Rather, we’re usually presented with extreme rules: “Do not touch!”, even for things that really could bear the strain. Touching sections are neatly roped off, and children are allowed to touch worthless reproductions of things. I was wandering through Ohio State’s main library last month, and I noticed a plastic replica of the Rosetta Stone mounted on the wall, itself behind plexiglass! As it happens, I had seen the real one in London not too long ago, and it seems that the glass around it only very recently went up.

We tend to keep important objects at too great a remove, if not perhaps from the general mouth-breathers, then definitely from the people worth inspiring. Let me give a good counter-example, by which I think few will be repelled, and then let me extend it further. Consider the president’s desk. It is my understanding, and I’m not going to take the time to look this up because it doesn’t matter, that the US president sits at the same desk as Abraham Lincoln and that future presidents will continue to do so. Logic tells us that eventually that desk will be beyond repair, or in poor enough condition that it will need to be replaced. That is, it’s life is killing it. But in the meantime, I imagine that desk, while perhaps not having certain modern amenities, does convey to the president of a young country an important sense of the continuity in which he stands. Every day, or perhaps once a month for photo-ops, he sits behind the desk where happened the things he learned as a child were great. Would we not all like to think ourselves worthy of that enviable position?

Now let me extend the example onto newer soil to see if there is enough yet for the roots to take. I like reading books while I bathe and I like bathing best when I can get my bathroom all steamy and warm. I prefer old books to new books and if I can get my hands on a 19th century copy, I’ll strongly prefer it to the 20th or 21st. Why? It’s that same sense of continuity, that same sense of (I hate this word so much) communing with the past that the real presence of very old things provides us. I like to think that I’m not so very far away from the times when great and admirable things happened. I like to think I’m worthy of being present in them, if only in this tremendously remote and abstract way.

But why do I take these old books into the steamy bathroom where I inevitably get them at least slightly wet? First of all, because I don’t suppose the contents to be secured by this specific copy. There are thousands of analogue and digital back-ups distributed all over the place. I couldn’t harm the ideas they contained if I tried. But I can take part of the experience of the thing for myself. I can walk in front of that motion sensing display. And I do just that.

But why must the experience happen in the bathtub? Why not in a dry place? Why not in the sterile clean-room in the salt mine? Because to do so would be to experience these books in a way that the authors never intended. No one writes for their words to be taken as a relic. I want to experience these books casually and comfortably, as people surely have tried to do since they first came out.

Now to reiterate my first contradistinction, I do not mean to say that I would take the fragmented leafs of some Roman copy of The Republic to the pool if I could. Such an artifact is presumably already beyond my ability to read and is serving the purposes of Roman philologists interested in the constitution of Roman inks or something like that. It’s highest purpose now is to help with tasks like reconstructing the technologies of earlier times. It’s words have already passed to another more permanent form. But this is exactly like the cycling of nutrients in an ecosystem! Certain types of historians are the detritivores of culture! What else is left of ancient Egypt for example but detritus? And yet what tremendous nutrients remain to be digested…though not by the likes of me.

Perhaps I’ll end by positing a food chain of cultural consumption and production. Our creative force may still be the rays of the sun, or the will of man depending on how abstract you want to be. The producers…that’s easy enough! And the consumers. But to be clear, I think the great mass of people barely participates in culture if at all even if they consume in the commercial sense. To say that someone is a consumer in the cultural food chain implies that the nutrients stay in the system; that is that they are also producing from the nutrients of the ideas and experiences they’ve digested.

Must all good things perish? Can or should some cultural artifacts attempt to stand immortal? Is Shelley’s Ozymandias a tragic poem, lamenting a lost culture, or a joyous poem, blissfully unaware of the yoke it wasn’t born under?

Posted in: Museums | Philosophy
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