Monday, August 31, 2009

Lunatics, Orphans, and Patrons: History of the Hudson Public Library

Breathing in Dust, Breathing out History

Books inhabit almost every place, space, and crevice in society. Though some may not believe this or are willing to disengage from any discussion on the role of books in favor of the catatonic drool-fest over Kindlebots and electronic text drones, the fact is, books are everywhere. What I've discovered to be one of the more interesting rituals in my searches for books in curious, different, and all-out odd places is the history of those very places, and if
time and resources permit, the relationship between the book (or books) and the place itself. So it was no stretch of the imagination to find a wealth of stories, history, and curiosity at this location I last visited in August. The Hudson Area Public Library is one of the most interesting (and certainly unique) libraries I've come across. The building itself was constructed ca. 1816 on the slopes of the city of Hudson, a once thriving river port town, which for a short period of its long history it was a locus of North American whaling. That's correct: whaling--the kind you might find among the not-so-slender pages of Melville's great novel Moby Dick, especially in the first chapters, where there are descriptions of men in boarding houses. This is the sort of place you might encounter a fellow boarder or, what was Melville's expression?--odd bedfellows! Ah, yes, well, just imagine transporting yourself back into a place like this, and you'll see what I mean.

The building above, as you may see, is characteristically old Hudson Valley Dutch style, but some of the fixtures, such as the front doors, are more "period modern" to the days of the building's construction. Every time I've entered into this library, I've stared in amazement at the front doors of the building, because they are so massive and ornate, almost of the Empire era of decorating and design. It is very possible that these doors are newer than the original construction of the building, and some design scholar will correct me on this. For now, let us continue with our tour of this magnificent structure and all of the associated stories that come with it. So, for starters, it was some decade or so after its construction that it was used for the housing of what were once called "the mad," or even less flattering "lunatics." In fact, the structure had been home to the now defunct "Hudson Lunatic Asylum," run by Dr. Samuel White.

In a 1917 publication entitled The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United State and Canada (Vol. 4), by Henry M. Hurd (Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins) et al., there is a fine short biography of Dr. White on pp. 527-8. It reads:

"Dr. Samuel White was born in Connecticut on February 23, 1777. He commenced his professional career in Hudson, NY, in 1797. Owing to the occurrence of insanity in his own family, he was led to pay much attention to mental disorders, an in 1830 he established a private institution at Hudson, which he successfully conducted. In 1840 he was elected president of the New York Medical Society, and delivered an address on insanity which presented on of the best synopses of our knowledge of insanity, especially of its treatment, which has ever been published. His health began to fail shortly after the meeting of the Association, and he died at Hudson, February 10, 1845. He was tall and slender, his countenance grave and dignified. With iron gray hair and a sober, calm and thoughtful expression, he gave the impression of a man of earnest character, and of thoughtful, studious habits. Within a limited sphere he discharged the various duties of a long and active professional life with ability and in a truly Christian spirit." (Image of Dr. S. White from "The Mentally Ill in America--A History of Their Care and Treatment from Colonial Times" by Albert Deutsch, p. 192 image page).

By mere association, I realize that Dr. White was a contemporary of Thomas Cole, whom we wrote about in our last article, and who died all but two years apart from Dr. White. It is interesting that, seventy-plus years after his death, he was not only described biographically by where he came from and what he did, but what he looked like and how he acted and comported himself! "...a sober, calm, and thoughtful expression" indeed!

Most historical accounts of psychiatric and medical history report positively on Dr. Samuel White and his Asylum. In fact, there is great praise given to him and his techniques of dealing with "the mad." And it may have worked in the olden days of nascent American therapies. In Hudson alone, the Asylum housed many an individual, from those without occupation to some of the celebrated poets and musicians of the day. But no matter who they were, Dr. White plied his trade and craft, tending to the betterment of the withering mind and spirit.

[See: about more of the history of the building; and "Social Aspect of the Treatment of the Insane" by Jacob Alter Goldberg, pp. 162-3, praising the work of Dr. White].

Today, on the outside, on the streets of Hudson, the structure looks like a very old building. But once you enter into the halls of the now-library, you will discover the multiple layers of history hidden within.

Of course, this fine old radiator is one of the accoutrements of the structure, which I found to be utterly noteworthy. There is, presumably, nothing here that has to do with books, save for the fact that they reside all around this building and in the same room as this heater. But because of its curiosity factor, I had to include it to give you an idea of how old this place looks on certain parts of the interior. And I'm sure, this heater warmed at least one reader in many long years of its existence.

The history room is, well, the local history room. As far as I understand, it is the repository for all things local, rare, unique, and special to the Hudson area. It was closed when I visited this fine day, but I had a chance to glance into the nicely furnished room. I will certainly have to make it back to this place another time, as it really seemed to glow with a spirit of historical worth and importance. The history room itself seemed spacious and full of cabinets, shelves, and other containers overflowing with aging documents, letters, and the fruits of human progress from decades and centuries gone by.

Now even though I am supposedly writing about books, I am also writing about their places and spaces--what surrounds them, and what those places mean both historically and socially. And perhaps in other ways. So, if one conjectures that I am going way off topic by displaying photographs of rogue electric switch hardware from the 1940s, I understand where you're coming from. But bare with me. Here, as you can see is, in fact, a very old light switch. It is the light switch, older than most of you reading this blog, which is located on the very top floor of the library, on the staircase leading to the attic (which you will see in a forthcoming photo). It is old, clearly. And yet, it is still functional. It led to rooms, which today I am still unclear what purpose they served, but were hidden away from the rest of the present library, away from most of the books, save for a few dumped haphazardly in the rafters, away from the patrons rummaging quietly some forty feet below on the main floor. And here I was, exploring this hidden world, far above. Looking for some other histories.

Indeed, there were some histories here. Something I wasn't really expecting. For most of us, this would seem like some fitful episode out of the Wizard of Oz. For these ash encrusted women's shoes make you feel like you are in some silver screen montage. I looked down at them, moved them around and picked them up. They were old, very old, and grimy. The person giving me the tour of the library told me that she was told a somewhat apocryphal tale: that in many old Dutch buildings, shoes were put up in the rafters for some folklorish purpose. I found an interesting website, which talks about this. The website is called "Old Houses Ritual Objects," and can be found at the following link: Nonetheless, this is an interesting point: apparently shoes were put in rafters or in between walls to ward off witches and the like. Yet, in this case, these shoes look like they belong to a witch! We'll never know, my pretties!

And yet the story continues. Here are some of the rafters themselves. I took this picture, because it shows, if ever slightly, both the woodwork of the connecting beams of the roof and the antique nails that were used to construct the roof. It is surely amazing how well these 200 year old segments of wood have held up to the centuries of wear and tear.

Here too is yet another example. You may be able to see the nails more clearly, coming out so sternly from the top of the lintel. And of course, the stonework is something rightly admired by both masons and Dutch stone aficionados. These buildings were made to stand the tests of time.

Among the many lives of this building, it once served as a bomb shelter. Yes, that's right, I said a bomb shelter. You may be doubtful in this statement, as was I until I actually saw dozens, if not scores of survival canisters from the Department of Defense. You will see in some other photos below, which I have posted, that there were many of these survival canisters literally strewn about the upper levels of the library, not just in the attic. There also appears to be a slight variation in the types of canisters that are located here and there and everywhere in the building: some are solid metal, while others are made of cardboard. But as you see, these metal containers were used to hold drinking water. What is most striking about this role of "bomb shelter," which the building played in those lovely McCarthy-era days, is how logistically odd it must have been: a bomb shelter, to shield young people from an atomic bomb, in an old Dutch stone building? Really? Not to mention the oddity of how they would not just survive a blast here, but how they would then get the necessary survival materials from an attic, like some now-irradiated drinking water, exposed to the atomic winter after the 200 year old planks were blown off by the A-bomb's blast..., good thinkin'!

But there is another life to this bibliotavern, bibliolibrary, bibliomadhouse, bibliobombshelter: it was an orphanage. At the left, I discovered up in the attic not one, but at least two pairs of crutches, which date back more than half a century. Who knows what unlucky chap or child had to use these for walking. They look like the most uncomfortable utensils I've ever come across that might assist a person to accommodate their bipedalism. I would have to take these to a specialist in antique hospital artifacts to get an accurate date, but my guess is that these are vintage early to mid twentieth century. I somehow doubt that the madmen of the early 19th century and Dr. White's care were using these and that they were still lying around. But who knows! We might construct a whole story around these forgotten things, like the handlers of old books: was it a poet, a politician, or a prognosticator? Were they famous? Did they ever accomplish something to be found in the annals of human consumption? Ah, it is left to the diaries of fiction, I'm afraid.

In this same room, we see above, were some racks, which appeared to be used for some sort of storage. It was difficult to maneuver in this area, because there were beams coming from every which way, but I did my best to capture the intricacies of this place in the late morning and early afternoon. The second image is the view from the inside of the splendid cantaloupe half window. Inside it is covered with plastic to retain heat in winter, presumably, and to keep the vermin out, presumably the pigeons of Hudson.

What is this? What is this, you say? Yes, I have no idea. But I took a photo of it, because I was enthralled by its oddity. Books and their spaces? Books and oddity, no doubt! Yes, now look below:

When I first ascended the staircase into the attic, which you will see below, I came upon a pile of books and papers in a box that had deteriorated into a dirty mess of papery scraps. I went over to examine the poor paper products, these weak victims of neglect. I picked them up reluctantly, like sick patients, with the fear that I might catch some horrid "ebolic" virus or a skin parasite that might leave me permanently plagued with lesions. Most of these items were reports on education and health from the era of the orphanage. I let them be, to rot and moulder in this blistering hot attic, where nothing seemed to thrive but dirt, ash, and forgotten times.

Somewhere on the fourth floor, I think it was, we can see a multi-purpose room: a display of the various layers of history at work. This bathroom was once used for the orphanage. Just imagine the little bodies running to and fro under the scornful watch of a warden or overseer, getting deloused and rinsed with industrial soaps provided by the state. Of course, their empty eyes pining for attention and the love of a parent only garnered by a tenuous surrogate system and those who were merely performing their tasks and jobs to earn a living. Built then atop of the bathroom were shelves and other items associated with the bomb shelter: yes, that bomb shelter. You can see more of the survival canisters at left in the photo below.

The two images above are the same canister: the top one shows what's inside of them. Yes, toilet paper, of course. But a whole toilet seat? I know germs are communicable, but in times of world conflict and atom bombs? Would the germs be irradiated so that we could all share toilet seats? The real question though is whether or not these are equipped with proper comfort, so that in time of need, a person can read on the toilet?

Above is an image from one of the lower floors looking outside the front of the library. The view faces south. The image below is the first electrical system installed in the building. I was so struck by the antiquity of the design and its execution that I had to take a photo. I mean, let's face it, this is vintage Edison technology at its best! This is what made this building glow and allow orphans to read by phosphorescent luminescence!

The cabinets below are some of the old hardware and internal architecture, which are still clinging to the insides of this building. This is where one might have found the linens or medicines for the young orphans, or perhaps some other need of a long forgotten time, place, or person.

Finally, some books! Yes! Books!! Yippy! It is perhaps a shameful fact that I have not really included many images of books in this blog. I was so taken by the spaces and places which gave this location a name that I almost forgot the point. I did not take photos of the library proper inside. But I did take some shots of the ground floor area, where the bi-weekly book sale takes place. Hidden down a back staircase, near the old electric switchboard, antique cabinets, and a stern looking fireplace where roasted pork and thick slices of bread may have once been cooked for the "mad" of the Hudson Lunatic Asylum of Dr. White's days, there we finally found some books. Books, books, and more books. Piled high and indiscriminately, they lived a moderately solitary life away from the public and the widely circulated books on the other levels. It was dusty and dark in here. And quiet, like any good traditional library. Yet, I can't help but think that the true hero of this tale is the building, perhaps more than the books. Books define their worlds in their own ways, but so too do buildings and other historical artifacts. This building is like a warhorse, or an old aunt or uncle, who has lived through the constant trammels of peculiar histories.

So, whatever has transpired, at least you know what the inside of a 190-year-old attic looks like, what books are scattered about, and how effective survival canisters with toilet seats can be. Oh, yeah. And let's not forget about Glinda's dirty shoes.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Painter, Some Books, and His Privy: The Home of Thomas Cole

The Painter and his Privy

On my recent trip to the Hudson Valley this summer, I took an afternoon outing, which led me through the old town of Catskill. On the northeast side of the village, slightly above the ridge where the land meets the Hudson River itself, is a stately old plot of land and a creamsicle yellow house trimmed in white. For years I'd driven by the stately old manor, but only on this fine summer day did I have the opportunity to stop--primarily because it was open! It turned out to be the home of famed Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, now an historic heritage site named as it was a century and a half ago "Cedar Grove." The day was warm, and I was mostly in the mood for walking around the grounds and scoping out any "bookish" items that may be on display or for sale. Of course, this was what I wanted to report on anyway. I was less concerned with actually taking a tour of the house, especially in this clement and increasingly close weather. Many of these old, historic homes off-gas piney wood and burnt ash smells, colonial-style scents I don't particularly mind, but am not often in the mood to inhale, especially if it's hot out.

At one point of meandering, I walked upon the porch of the very late Mr. Cole. There before me stood the Catskills: the gems of his illustrious imagination, his Xanadu in a slight shade of summer blue (to evoke our late friend and historian Alf Evers). I could imgine that nearly two centuries ago, the view from this porch was clear and the picture of the mountains more vibrant. At the bottom of this photo you may see only slightly a board, which had the outline of the mountains before you and the names of the peaks. Unfortunately, neither the board nor the distance yield an opportune vantage for the contemporary viewer; merely imagination! But this should not dull the experience had at this lovely place. The locale was mightily beautiful; the grounds were swelling with botanical pulchritude, offering honey bees and their apicultural diets a bounty of floral nectars. I rubbed the dirty panes of glass into silver-dollar size circles, then peered into the partially decorated rooms. No books to be seen. Only some old tables, chairs, and dishes. A painting here and there. No books. A possible relief, I thought--I didn't have to spend $8 to go in and find no books! Of course, that's not the real point of historical tourism, but for this ol' blogger, I had other things to tend to. I just went out into the yard and enjoyed the air and green lawnscape and all that good stuff. The first image below is of the main house, where the good artist lived.

The image above I took in the book shop. It was actually a visitor's center, which doubled as a book and gift shop. I thought that I'd take a few photos of the books (of course!), including this one, which only displays a shadowy profile of two books against the old-style paned glass and back yard. But I also took some photos of the books on display--also for sale. Many of the books were more general interest, Hudson River and Catskill Mountain history. Some items dealt with art and the history of the Hudson River School. The shop was located inside of one of the old barn buildings. It had been converted to house the visitor needs of the museum. There was a short video playing, which detailed the life of Thomas Cole and his contemporary world. I'm always curious to see what sort of materials these small museums will have on display, and whether the items are either a worthy effort or even deal with items appropriate to the historic site and time.

Looking at books such as these at left, reminds me of an experience I had back in 2007, when I visited the legendary site of the Battle of Tippecanoe, fought on what is now the small hamlet of Battleground, Indiana, on November 7, 1811. Led by then Governor of the Indiana territory, William Henry Harrison, the US forces fought against the American Indian Confederation, led by Tecumseh. This was an event that was branded into the little minds American school children for decades, but little meaning was ever attached to the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" (at least for me) until I came to the very site of the battle. But the reason I speak about this at all, is that when I went to the site of the battle I was overtaken by a moderate sense of disgust and shame, rather than patriotism or pride. There was a certain feeling of vilification of the Native Americans in this hallowed space. The grounds were shadowed by mighty oaks and locust trees ("some of the bullets are still in the trees!" announced one brochure), and the museum and visitors' center highlighted the rural heritage of patriotic decoration and uniformity, rather than historical discussion. So to the point: there were many, many books on Indiana history, American history, and Military history. But almost nothing of local Native American history. There was general "Indian" history. But the gift shop seemed more concerned with selling "native dream catchers" than books about Tecumseh. So, I may be picky and critical on this point, but it is something to consider. I don't mean to put down the Tippecanoe site or museum, because it is indeed a rather extraordinary place that one should see at some point. I'm glad I did. Of course, I was struck by its books in my own curious way.

Now even though books are the focus of my blog entries, I must admit that I was taken by this fine little structure: the painter's privy. Yes: this is the place where the great Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole did his business. Nowadays we know that people "read on the toilet" (I don't know why I wrote that in quotes), but how long has this been going on? Did the Sumerians, Romans, or Greeks read on the pot? Surely, going to the potty in the olden days was something that was less than glamorous. I'm not too sure it has glamor today, but in the period that there was a transition from outdoor outhouses to the era of indoor plumbing, the move to a place and space to "egest" necessitated a change in the architectural surroundings. And yet, this building is more than 150 years old! (Just remember, when a person went to an outhouse, it wasn't a pleasant experience: it was cold or hot, probably wet and mildewed, and stank to the highest of high heavens.) When I poked my head into this most glorious structure, I was surprised at how glamorous it was--really! There were plenty of elevated, flat, and dry surfaces to leave your books and other reading materials around on. And oddly, it appeared to be somewhat of a communal ensemble: there were three distinct toilets in a row. I mean, it's not like you can do it thrice at one time, unless there's something I don't understand about human anatomy. Yet looking at this, I can just imagine the good Thomas Cole, after a long day of dabbing his horse-hair brushes into dollops of vibrant blue, red, and yellow oils and creating the mythic images now super-produced for high school English and Social Studies textbooks, coming home to Cedar Grove, tossing his straw hat to the side, picking up a copy of Byron's poems, and settling himself into his oval-windowed chalet du scat. I'm sure he would have chosen Harper's Weekly, but he died before it came out.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Books and Shakers

Yes, this is about Shakers: not things that contain milk and ice-cream, nor other contraptions for parties, soirees, or other lively events. No, the Shakers I'm talking about flourished in the 19th century, built fine prayer and meeting halls, worked with wood, loved their Bibles, and kept to themselves, by which I mean they were celibate.

The reason I decided to write about "Books and Shakers" has to do with the location of the Shaker Museum being located right across the street from Albany Airport, where I landed in upstate NY. It is a rather hidden location, a place where there are small signs indicating some historical locale that has to do with Shakers, but nothing more than that on the main thoroughfares. But in the long wood-paneled buildings, painted in New England whites and other anemic hues, once lived a band of men and women, whose dress, prayers, ecstatic dancing, and life choices branded them as "Shaking Quakers," more commonly called "Shakers." Characters like these decent long-coated men, with wide-brimmed hats, who look more like medieval French apothecaries ready to dole out a dose of bromide or quinine, lived, worked, prayed, and shook in these veritable halls. (And is it just me, or does the guy to the right look like former presidential candidate John Edwards?)

When I first pulled down one of the quiet country roads not a few hundred feet from the Albany Airport, wisps of tall summer grass and elegantly lumbering willows swayed in the moderate afternoon breeze. Another sign appeared in blue and white declaring that we were now just approaching the site of the Shakers, which had been founded at this place in the town of Watervliet more than two centuries ago. I drove up and around a great winding driveway, which was actually a public access road, but was so narrow it appeared to be something akin to an old country road. Then this fine white building came into view, and some more signs in blue and white stood here and there telling of the museum and visitor's center. Other buildings on the site were old and crumbling. One looked like some greying institution for senior citizens or the sick. Another was not institutional at all, but had a once-beautiful porch out front that had rotted into oblivion and fallen in on itself. The screens were brambled messes and the support structures were no more than stalagmites of putrid maple, pine, and ash that had been left to molder under climactic harshness.

Parking in the lot above, I meandered toward the large white building. Aside from the buildings, which I observed and described above, there were several barn-type structures. They were large and formidable on this Shaker campus. But I had no idea if they were used in any capacity at present. I went over to read the two blue and white signs which were leaning on the side of the museum building. The little sign at left was not really visible from the road, but when I got out to take a photo, you could read it quite well. The sign reads, in part: "This Meeting House, or Church, was built in 1848 to replace an earlier (1791) and much smaller Meeting House. It demonstrates many typical characterisitcs of Shaker architecture: double doors, one for men and one for women; a large meeting room with no columns to allow the dancing which was a part of their worship..." and so forth.

In this photo, you can see the sign I just spoke about above leaning on the white meeting house. In front is the larger sign welcoming people to the museum and shop.

The books of the Shakers (or even "about" Shakers) were not all that numerous. But I did manage to get a few shots in of what they did have on display or for sale. In this one image, there were several books and magazines which dealt specifically with Shaker arts and crafts, especially the furniture that has become so widely known and admired. The shop consisted of a few bookshelves of books, quilts, wood-stuff, and trinkets overlaid with more than a hint of that country-time potpourri that has become so popular among the ranks of rural Americana in its rusticity and hard-working ethos. There were only a few older ladies rummaging around the space. It was quiet. I don't even think they had any music piping in from a loudspeaker. But I managed to get a sense of what sort of book culture (or not) was inhabiting this place.

What was more interesting, I found, was the museum space, which occupied much more of the old building. Here we have a placard explaining part of the meeting house-turned-museum space, which had been used as visitors' benches. As noted, even "visitors had to follow Shaker customs," where men sat on one side and women on the other. They surely liked to keep folks separated, perhaps for fear that they might "touch" and that could lead to who knows what!

Following this placard above, placed just to its left was this famous picture. I'm sure there are many of you out there that remember seeing this in your high school social studies books. But probably not much more! (Ah, I suppose I was one of them too, at one point!) Though, not the original, this image shows the great dancing and "shaking" circles that occurred in these halls. It also shows the very seat that the visitor's sat on, the "Visitors' Benches." No, no, they're not playing "Ring Around the Rosy."

Now taking a brief pause from my tour around the meeting hall and museum, I ducked into the restroom and found before me an old sign declaring "All Persons Are Forbid Using Tobacco in this House." Ah..., presumably "God's House," but that's another story all together! I thought it was funny that it should be posted there, right above the toilet. To puff on the pot!--how crude!

These next two images I found worthy of comparison. The first image I took on the way out of the Shaker site. I pulled the car over, leaned out the door and snapped this photo, in order to compare to the next image, which was taken more than 100 years ago. It is the same building and I wanted to get this comparative perspective. If I recall correctly, the latter image was taken sometime in the later 19th century, perhaps in the 1880s. I'll let you readers assess the comparisons.

Back in the museum, I couldn't help myself but snap a few photos of the most curious objects and items on display. Here you will see oils, lotions, and soaps produced (I believe) and used by the local Shakers.

Also on display was this fine little book, entitled "Shaker Days Remembered." I thought that this was a fine addition to the biblio-tour of the day. Sometimes when I find such gems of the book world, and then don't buy them, I continue to have pangs of regret. But I shouldn't, as I have so little room left in my home for any more books! At least I was able to snap a quick photo of this book and get its title in the event I want to go and find it one day. But when shall I ever have enough time to read so many books!?

Returning to the clutches of the melodiously clad
"Shaking Quakers," I had to submit to my camera's shutter, submit to the desire to capture or recapture the solemnity (and for the snarky among us) the comic imagery of sartorial bibs and scarves and cravats. Some of you might be saying--"what fodder for a caption competition!" And thinking: "we're keepin' all of our clothes on and wrapping ourselves with napkins so no one can touch us!--now let's dance!" Ah, if we only knew the life they lived! Of course, none of us are really willing to wear heavy woolen trousers or long hemmed dresses, wrap ourselves up around the chin, and part our hair like some Biblical ocean. But that said, we all have plentiful and wild imaginations. And we have images like these that can somehow make the world of a hundred and twenty plus years ago seem like a time warp from the middle ages.

But when we confront the very basic, most illuminated spaces where the Shakers themselves lived, even if they dressed like Anne of Green Gables dolls for Advent, might we think differently about these folks? About their ways of life? About history itself differently? Maybe we'd reconsider the role of history and the book differently, if in fact we had some of their antique books in hand, rather than simply something new and fancy and polished. Like an old hymnal or Bible that had the imprints of leather-stained palms, fingerprints, and human sweat leaving salty curves of dried perspiration on the hardened and crisp-yellow pages. Here though, here is the image of the inside of the meeting house, which also houses the museum. The floors gleam with reflections of the afternoon sun off of the soft woodenness and antiquity of the structure. The walls are white and trimmed with pewter-blue paints. And a woman sits quietly playing her dulcimer to the right.

The light pours in, forming puddles of bright white glare on the floor. And in the next image, you see the traditional hangers, set into the wall on braces of long wood beams. Chairs that would be used for sitting in circles for discussions or prayers, are flipped upside down, and leveled against the wall for storage. There was a certain sense of peace and serenity in this place. The little plucks of the dulcimer tickled the silence like a comfortable back-scratch. The room smelled of sweet potpourri and herbs, hung by threads along one side of the room. I thought it would be a nice place to have a cup of sweetened tea and read a book. Of course, I didn't even bring a book to read, save for the one on the Erie Canal, but that was still out in the car packed among my bags. And I often want to read about something that has to do with the given location I'm presently in. So I was less interested in the Erie Canal at this point in the afternoon, and more interested in the Shakers. I'm sure many of you feel the same way. You don't travel to Paris and bring along a history of the Manchus, right? Well, at least I don't.

I want to leave you today with this bucolic image. There is much more of a story I could tell today and write about. But I should at least pay homage to the historic, if not heroic personage of Mother Ann Lee. Without plumbing the depths of my Wikipedian knowledge on the subject, I will refrain from a full frontal assault of your historical sensibilities of American religious experience. The short version, the pre-Chapter 11 Readers' Digest condensed narrative is that this woman of often ecstatic sensibilities was married at a young age (reportedly against her will) and bore a total of eight children: 4 of whom died in infancy or prematurely in labor; 4 of whom did not live into adulthood. These traumas, among other issues, led her to the proclamation of the celibate life. It also led her to the rural wilderness of upstate New York in the mid-18th century. Indeed, it was a place that was the true crucible of war, the crossroads of the French and Indian conflict, the quagmire of religious ferment. It was a place, this Watervliet, that became a settlement for the Shaking Quakers, under the fervently moving, stirring, and dominant gaze of Mother Ann Lee. And even though she died with her books and followers nearby, in this upcountry, more than 200 years ago, so little appears to have changed on the little lay of earth. The cows as you can see still moo and measure their cud in mouthfuls. But little has changed. Except for the rumble of multi-ton commercial aircraft taking flight not half-mile away.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Books in Airports

Books on Walls, on Shelves, in Hands

I cannot help but notice the semiotic power of books every time I enter an airport. Interestingly, the idea occurred to me to write about "books in airports" (in contrast to simply "airport books") when I was walking down the concourse of Midway Airport on the way to a flight to Albany, New York this past month. It all began when at one moment, I looked up and saw this illuminated "billboard" which was, in fact, an image of a giant rustically worn book, made to look like a journal or much beloved personal Bible, opened to the center. Yet what was written was an advertisement for the Sierra Club and the legacy of Lewis and Clark two centuries later. As you might imagine, being the bibliophile I am, I was immediately drawn to the curious nature of this ad, to its use of a book for a prop, and to the way they simply created a vibrant image out of a literary and semiotic artifact, in order to draw in the viewer, consumer, and public to the message of the Sierra Club.

Within seconds, camera now in hand and ready, I turned the corner from this illuminated masterpiece and was confronted with this gallows of phonebooks, hanged as men, hung as dead weights. I never understood the abusive look of this set-up, though I fully understand its usefulness. And as many of you have already discovered, my visceral attachments to phonebooks are not nearly as nostalgic or tactilely emotive as with other books. Interestingly, regarding the semiotic value of books, when we encounter such books as these, no one assumes that these are the latest mass-produced Jodi Picoult favorites, nor L'Etranger by Camus hanging there. That just wouldn't be cool, as the kids say. (Why the heck would there be seven copies of Camus hanging from a plastic gallows in Midway airport, anyway?) The point is, the hanging phonebooks serve as yet another example of the semiotic value and principle of books in society. "Of course they're phonebooks!" you mockingly say. Well, this is no snarky repartee, my friends. This is serious (and at times, solemn) business. But let's go on.

Now, of course, there is the "airport bookshop." One of the things that surprised me was the diversity of book locations to be found in airports. In my case, during this little study, there was the illuminated Sierra Club image, the phonebook gallows, and the bookshop (Hudson's Book Shop, at left). But there were, as you all might have expected, many, many people reading books publicly. And not just sitting down: reading in chairs, reading standing up, reading while walking, reading while leaning. I've touched upon some of these kinesthetic arts in my conference papers at ATLA and elsewhere in recent years, but there is certainly much more to discover in these ambulatory, cognitive, and locomotive reading behaviors among humans, especially in airports. One of my favorite sightings in Midway on this trip was of a woman slouched and bent in a chair with a book nearly two feet above her head, her arms outstretched, her eyes fixed to the pages of the book. I wanted to go up and take a photo of her, but that would have seemed really odd. Though, admittedly, I did take this photo of a man reading at the line-up station of Southwest Airlines, of course, for your visual benefit.

These are surely commonplace sites (and sightings) for books in airports, but as you will discover shortly, these are not the only places that books are found. In fact, there is the "in between" place for books: the plane itself. And you will see that in the pocket in front of me on the plane was my "airplane read," snugly fit into the front pocket--it was a history of the Erie Canal, entitled Bond of Union, which served me well in some of my other research for this blog in August (forthcoming articles will include: "Books and/on/near the Erie Canal" and "Books on Tugs," among others).

The Interfaith-fulness of Airports...

After a not-so-long flight from Chicago to Albany, I arrived in the Albany International Airport, a small, almost intimate, very clean and hospitable place. Just off the plane and heading toward the restroom, I saw a little room off to the side, darkened through the glass window, but offering a little glow of blue light. I walked over and recognized this place from the small placard fixed to the door: "Interfaith Prayer Room." Immediately, I thought: "Ah! What an ample opportunity to discover something new...and presumably with books!" And indeed, I was quite right. As soon as I went in, I discovered a number of things, which I thought might be of interest to readers, bibliophiles, and travelers of like-minded ilk. The first photo is of a card declaring and describing the sacred space (or, perhaps in its multi-religious, multi-faith way, it should be sacred "spaces" in the plural, but I'll let you decide).

Just to the right of this card, which was sitting on a combination stand-bookshelf-credenza (which I will show you in a photo shortly) was a guest book for people to sign as they come in or go out. I didn't sign it, but perhaps I should have. Many people write their reflections of the space (and in many ways of themselves and of their experiencing of the space), which may be a fine little exercise in public reflection, catharsis, and healing. Though, it is hard to say if anyone ever reads the other entries. Nonetheless, it is an interesting practice. And clearly, many people come into this room, to escape the rush and hubbub of traveling in a crowded airport, to escape the cramped quarters of a full airplane, to escape the noise and malodorous smells of fellow travelers. So a quiet, freshly floral scented, and preciously dimmed room with soft lighting coming up from the floor and illuminating images of lily-pads and alpine meadows is surely a welcome experience.

As you can see in this photo, the mural of a pond along with other natural-looking fixtures of plants and meditative stones bends into a soft crescent style room. Benches and chairs form a ring around the back edges of the small chamber, while two sizable pillows or meditation-style mats are situated at center, for those wanting to practice their spiritual acts, meditations, prayers, or simply relax amid the quietude of the nearly soundproof room. Even just finding myself examining the room, walking about in circles, almost gawking at its subtle hidden placement amid the rush in this airport was rather relaxing. I kept looking at the polished floors and the two mats, and the lily pads, and the glowing light. And with each passing meditative glance, I discovered something new and intriguing. In fact, I almost tripped over a prayer rug!

What was interesting about the prayer rug was that it was embroidered with an image of a Middle Eastern City, which looked like Jerusalem to me. But I'm still not clear on this. But it was intricately made with details flourished on all four edges. It was clear, however, that is was a prayer rug, and just above, you may be able to see it faintly in this photo, was an orientation marker telling practitioners which way to find Mecca or the Western Wall or any other holy spot on the globe, depending on your desire, background, or preference.

Now to the books again! Of course, when I looked at this fine grouping of books, I was at first gleeful (really!--I just wanted to use that word, of course) and amazed by the assortment of texts. Bibles, Tanakhs, Qur'ans, the Bhagavad Gita, and more. All standing next to each other like little Kindergartners, each being asked to "play nicely together." I felt like it was an evocation of what the world should be: a big playground of multiplicity; it seems to work in theory, but not even close in practice. But perhaps that's what it is anyway: a big playground of religious diversity, embodied for the most part through disparate, often obscure and oblique texts from thousands of years ago, which convey their own sense of reality or realities, which in turn are understood, imagined, and interpreted by the human billions across and around the world as right, just, tempered, and ultimately true. Yet, for us right here and right now, in this little tiny room casting off blue light, they sit here tirelessly and calm, on shelves, bothering no one, saying nothing till a reader or tourist comes by.

Perhaps my favorite juxtaposition was the image of The Book of Mormon along side mixed bags (literally!) of prayer beads and rosaries. What combinations! Something akin to what you might find at the prizes booth at the county fair. These items certainly appear to be on display, as if they were for sale, rather than for use. Nevertheless, it does appear that The Book of Mormon was at least leafed through, with its corners upturned and first few pages soiled by finger-dirt. As for the rosaries and prayer beads, they looked as shiny and clean as plastic solemnity and religious artifacts should be!

Now for my parting image, I leave you with this ensemble of interfaith wares and gadgetry. Certainly, you've seen the books, their positioning next to one another, and their availability for the wandering contemporary mendicant. Look too at the prayer shawl and bag containing other accoutrements to the left. It is amazing how many items are occupying this one little space. Many of the world's religions confined to a corner of a darkened room, in a small airport, in upstate New York. It's nice that someone has put together this collection of religious multiplicity. Perhaps it is one of the few places on earth that such marks of religion get along: the books and utensils of religion, holding the words or Word of goodness and truth. A brief pause and reflection on the animate and inanimate, however you envision "the book" in the world. Just watch out when people get involved.