Monday, November 30, 2009

Book-Art at an Antique Shop

Unusual Books and Other Oddities: A Fine Line Between "Old" and "Old Junk"

I am particularly fond of antique shops. I have been for a long time. In fact, I think I had my first antique shop experience as a wee child, gazing upward among the glass wares, rare china, Gilded Age portrait paintings, and Empire furniture. It has long been part of my own childhood memories. So it is not difficult to understand why I still have more than just an affection for the antique shop phenomenon. As I've grown older and traveled more frequently, I've found comfort mixed with curiosity when I find a new shop, especially in places I haven't lived in or visited before. A number of years ago I visited Montreal and Quebec City with my sister. I remember strolling one very cold December morning around the old city there, upon the ramparts, slipping on hard ice and trampling over crunchy snow. It was a majestically old place, so European feeling in fact, that I felt I was more likely in France than North America. And the added flavor of the regional Quebecois patois, corner shops selling steaming crepes, and stately old antique shops selling Napoleonic wares all confused my mind into thinking I was a continental visitor, not a New Worlder. (My favorite line came from my sister: "It's like France without the plane ride!")

These Quebec City antique shops were extraordinary: they were packed full of truly antique items, French-style from every period of early modern ancien regime housewares to the Nouveau Realisme style art and decor envisioned in France fifty years ago. It was by all accounts a brilliant antiquing experience. This said, when I came to Chicago some years ago, I discovered that the midwest had a far different understanding of "antiques" and "antiquing." It often gets confused with "thrifting" and even more so with "crafts" and "crafting." It was, I discovered during scores of visits to rural Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan over the years, a clear case of what we might call "Junktiques" and "Junktiquing." This, as you can already imagine, is the portmanteau of "junky antiques" or some such combination. And there are not just dozens or scores, but hundreds of these in rural areas in a 100 mile radius of Chicago. In fact, I'm certain there are thousands across the country. This said, they are not all completely "Junktiquy" in quality. I've found some rather shocking and extraordinary finds, such as a magnificent painting of Castel St. Angelo in Rome, which I purchased in a basement junktiquery in rural Indiana for $40.

One of the problems in these establishments is that they often attract people, who end up selling honest to goodness junk. And I must confess that the most egregious form of junk in antique or junktique stores is the book. The worst case of this junk-puffery I've seen in recent years was up near Ludington, Michigan on the west coast of the state--a sandy Lake Michigan resort town, with a number of decent restaurants and lots of antique and junktique establishments. I recall a section of "old books" (in this case "old" referred to anything published before 1990! ...and usually nothing older than 1920)--and in this section were several copies of Winston Churchill's 6-volume set "The Second World War," among other ratty and tattered and in some cases water stained books. And these books were marked at $30+ each! The Churchill books weren't even First Editions! In most used book shops, you'll find these sorts of books running anywhere from 50 cents to $4, but no more. And a new set of the Churchill today will run you about $70 for all 6 volumes.

Perhaps one of the worst moments in my own junktiquing history, which nearly was the death knell to my nomadic junktiquing career, came when I visited a junktique shop in a rural India town southeast of Valparaiso. I don't remember the name of the town. But what I do remember was that I'd been stopping at all the antique shops in nearby towns. This was the last of the day. It was, in fact, someone's house, not a proper shop. A raggedy hand painted sign hung anemically from the porch "Antiques Inside." I haltingly went up, knocked on the door and entered. A glass case with junk jewelry sat squarely in the living room with natty old oversized dresses from the 1970s hanging from the window frames. Behind the glass display case was an oversized colored television blaring some game show. And in a recliner chair, hooked up to an slow-pumping oxygen tank sat an old emphysemic, a haggard woman with a furrowed face plowed by years of cigarette smoking. She got up slowly, approached the middle of her living room, just behind the glass counter, and with a deep bellowy voice, proceeded to tell a litany of one-line racist jokes. I left immediately, soured for years by that experience.

Living in Chicago, though, has afforded closer opportunities than Indiana. Many of the suburban towns, like LaGrange, IL, have some fine antique shops. There is a large shop in LaGrange that is a mix of antique and craft, with a lesser degree of junktiques. It was in this shop that I found the items featured in today's blog: the old books on "how to use a library" and of course this curious book-art. The book-art is actually an old Readers' Digest that was finely crafted into, well...into something which I have no idea how to define. It's round and stands erect and fans out. Maybe one of you readers has a good name for it! Living in the big city affords one the opportunity to search in both the depth of that city's neighborhoods, its downtown, and its suburbs; and I've never (thankfully!) had the chance to relive that dreadful emphysemic-encountered afternoon, either in an antique/junktique shop or any other shop for that matter. That house-shop probably no longer exists, its sick old lady gone to the cigarette lounge in the sky. And I'll surely think again about entering someone's house dubbed as an "antique shop." In retrospect, perhaps, it might have been as foolish as entering a run down house with a sign on it reading "Free money inside!" or "God lives here, he wants to talk to you: come in!" I'm curious, but not that curious.

Books, Burkas, Boxes, and Bibles: Adventures at a Mega Yard Sale

Another Place to Find Used Books...and More!

I wonder, is there ever a day that goes by when we don't find a new book experience? Again, bringing you all back to the glorious warm weather of late summer and early autumn, I had a chance, once more, to attend the annual multi-family, multi-block yard sale in the Balmoral neighborhood of Chicago. Now, when I say "multi-family" I'm talking almost one-hundred different families! This is a singular event, and it's in a fairly prosperous neighborhood. So the chances are that you will find some pretty good items for pickin'. My inclination and desire is surely for books, but this multi-multi-mega yard sale is not only books, but just about anything you can imagine.

The first image above is an old produce box, probably once overflowing with freshly picked and deliciously sweet oranges, now filled with some fine specimens of books: a do-it-yourself series in a handsome red binding and the multi-volume set of the Standard Encyclopedia. Today these things may be moderately out-of-date, but you never know what sort of hidden wisdom may be found in and between the aging pages. Indeed, one of the many secrets and surprises of the used book in society is finding what its previous owners have left within it. I have had my fair share of 20-year-old plane tickets or stubs for a long-gone play or theater show, all found in between the subtle pages of a used book I purchased at a thrift store or old used book shop. Most of the time these things matter very little. But they do demonstrate a certain level of history and biography. And certainly, a level of curiosity on my part: "why was Jake Melville flying to San Diego on April 16, 1986...and why was he reading Thomas Pynchon?" Surely, we'll never know. Though, when this sort of thing happens in much older works or books, some of which I may find in the library or special collections and archives, well, then this is a whole different story! Our physical artifacts may tell future historians a specific story that may be important; or even solve a crime! Above, we see a lovely spread of wares: books and other collectibles, including some antique class photos from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I'd noticed a few on the street from veterinary and medical schools. I always find this to be a bit of a sad commentary on American life: the dispersal of family goods, especially the images of long-dead relatives, because next of kin or the ever-fanning-out progeny have no link to the past or desire to know where (or from whom!) they've come.

There are those other treasures, then, like this movable armoire, which belonged to a diva or other lyrical personality, who was once a member of the Chicago Civic Opera Co. If I'd had enough space in my home, I'd probably have bought it! Being a bit of an opera aficionado myself (both of the music and libretto history, less of the singers), I found this object to be a rather splendid artifact of the "good old days" of opera theater and life. (Now, I must admit here, that I think that this may have been used to store "armor" for a bellicose opera scene and is actually less of an "armoire" technically!! Oh, well. Apologies, friends. I'm sure we could store other things in it, though...).

This item was also really a true remnant of Chicago opera history, which one does not see that often. There is no Chicago Opera Museum to my knowledge, which is a shame, as it has one of the great opera companies in the country, if not the whole world. And there is such a rich history regarding operatic theater and the art surrounding it. Perhaps, if there were such a place, an operatic artifact like this fine old armor could find a home there. Below is an image of the inside of the armoire, nicely organized into various compartments for storing anything from clothes to, yes, of course: books!

Above, a common sight at the yard sale: children's books strewn out on a wrinkled sheet or blanket. Whether a move to look "neat" and not like you've just dumped your kids' library out on the lawn or simply to protect the books from the moist grass, such displays were very common.

At one home, I spied this old musical manuscript. I did not inspect it closely, and so both my immediate and now retrospective thought about it is that it is some sort of facsimile of an old manuscript. Though, one never knows with these sorts of things. Some well-to-do folks live in this neighborhood, and one of them may have had a penchant for collecting old manuscripts of music. This reminds me of something in my own neighborhood: a beautifully large and old home stands across the street from my own modest townhouse. I never knew the history of the home, until one day someone told me that it was owned (until about 20 years ago) by the well-known opera scholar Howard Brown. This to me was striking in many ways, partly because of the late Mr. Brown's interest and scholarly work in baroque opera, but also because Howard Brown's legacy was something I was rather well aware of: Chicago's "higher end" thrift stores, which used to spot the city in half a dozen locations (though, now is down to just a few)--and are by far my favorite book-finding locales--are called the "Brown Elephant" shops, named after Howard Brown; the proceeds go to AIDS and HIV education and clinics in Chicago.

Now how could one deny the magic of such a place as "Bookland?" This fine set of books called "Journeys Through Bookland" was in a box next to the owners of the faux-music manuscript above. Charles H. Sylvester's 1922 multi-volume imprint of great children's literature is still a delight for some. Its artistic renderings and fairy-tale plots will get both children with imaginations and book lovers (with imaginations) excited.

The diversity of this event was clear from the throngs of people who visited and shopped along the streets (12 full blocks, if I read the advertisement correctly). It was a fairly warm day and walking the streets was pleasant. This burka'd young woman with son and baby-child in stroller were checking out the wares, after breezing by me like a quiet wind. This is one of the great aspects of Chicago, that you have such a great spectrum of people from all over the world coming together at one of the most fundamental levels of human instinct: thrift shopping. And in this characteristically American way: in the form of yard sales. Admittedly, in my many worldly travels, I've rarely seen a "yard sale" outside of North America. There may be something about "re-using someone else's things" in other cultures, which may be seen as "low class" or "unsophisticated." But here, even if some people feel this way, a great number of Americans love getting a deal.

Jesus in a box? I've come across a lot of Jesus paraphernalia, but I must admit, I can't imagine that this is what nearly two-thousand years of theology and church history were hoping for: a crucifix sold in to a glossy image of Batman! Oh, the outrage! And below..., more Jesus wares: a Holy Bible guarded over by an exercising Jesus, apparently balancing or doing calesthenics.

At one table there were books piled high and overseen by this young boy and his father. On an adjacent table, there was yet another type of book...a faux-book in fact: it was a book-box. The kind of box that is made to look like a book, but is actually some hiding place for your secret stash of hair brushes, cigarettes, or, hmmmm, banned books? (I apologize for the bright glare on the right hand side--it must have been the image of God or holy spirit intervening in something I was doing...).

I leave you kind readers with this little triumvirate of tattered Spanish language Bibles. Why? you ask, am I offering this image of tattered Bibles, Bibles which aren't even for sale or part of this yard sale? There is a fine story here, a story about this neighborhood. Even though this is a well-to-do neighborhood, one of the focal points of the neighborhood and this annual sale is an old Baptist Church. This old church offers its own sale of used items, but for the benefit of the church and its social services. The community it serves is a diverse immigrant population, from both Latin America (Nicaragua, El Salvador) and East Asia (Burma). I once almost had a part-time job here, teaching English to these students, but my schedule ended up not working. In any case, we have these Bibles. I'd gone to the church's sale, but hadn't found anything: its contents were not as fancy or attractive as its neighbors. But it did--as every past year--have a tent, where they sold hot dogs, kraut, and drinks. And another table, where the newly arrived immigrants from Latin America or Burma could sell the delicious dishes from their homelands. I'd gone in the church building to wash my hands, and then spotted these old tattered Bibles. They were clearly well-worn, well-used, and there for those who needed them. And just like the simple set-up of hot dogs or modest plates of Burmese noodles, the real treasure and wealth was to be found not on the lawns of big fancy houses, but where we least expected it.

A Book Sculpture in the Park

It's Got Pages, But You Can't Turn Them!

This fall I was walking around a nearby park and I spied this little sculpture, which I'd known about before, but paid little attention to. In fact, I know that I've seen plenty of these types of sculptures, but not until I started to do work on this blog or search around for all-things "book" have I been more observant and aware of such items. Well, this fine sculpture is of a book. It is located in (the smaller) Washington Park: (there are two Washington Parks in my neighborhood; the smaller one is named after Harold Washington (1922-1987), the former mayor of Chicago, back in the 1980s, who apparently lived in a high-rise adjacent to the park.) I'd past this sculpture many times, but never stopped to look at it or examine it.

This sculpture is, in fact, a memorial to the former mayor: the first black mayor of Chicago, who had a fair amount of popularity, but died of a heart attack while sitting at his desk; oddly enough, his main opponent in the 1983 mayoral election, Bernie Epton, died just two weeks after Mayor Washington. But for sure, in Chicago, there are far more remembrances and memorials to the good Mr. Washington, who endured the racially charged politics of the 1980s (and his opponent's campaign), and the tumultuous period of city council politics marked by bitter in-fighting and antagonism from various sides. Though, we might wonder if any of this has ever changed in good old Chicago! But back to the important things here: tending to the needs of the city, in the best sense of that idea. We may continue to find warmth and possibility in the words of Mayor Washington here, inscribed in a bronze-type placard inserted into the stone book, reading "I see a Chicago of Educational Excellence and Equality of Treatment in which all children can learn to function in this ever more-complex society."

Even nowadays, it is important to consider the role of the book in this 25+ year-old statement from Mayor Washington. Chicago Public Schools still suffer the traumas of daily life and the inadequacies of institutional education, from underfunding to general educational apathy in various forms. The future of education will continue to be found in books, though it will and must continue to be supplemented by good mentoring, guidance, and general experience in the world. We cannot go off and let the technocrats dictate a non-book world to us, our kids, or society itself. Books will stay, they will be read, shared, discussed, commented on, considered and applied. Without many or most students knowing it, their interaction with books as children and adolescents will have a profound effect upon the way they go about their future lives, whether it is choosing their profession or simply taking their own children to the library. These are concerns about both content and the object of the book itself: I wonder if in some very, very remote future, if a "bookless" library in secondary school or colleges (God forbid!) would promote anything in the way of understanding the past and encouraging students to become librarians, archivists, or preservationists? Will this be a lost art?

So, what really constitutes a "book" or "bookishness?" Just because it looks like one, doesn't mean it is one! But that brings up another point: why would an artist or sculptor build something in the shape of a book, as a memorial, for example? What power of symbolism does a book really have? As you will one day see in a future posting I have been working on regarding book sculptures in cemeteries, there is some relationship between the book as symbol of memory and memorializing, but also of "the past." In this case, the book presumably has nothing to do with the Bible, which in graveyards, many book sculptures are intended to represent the great holy book of antiquity. The amazing thing about the book, both in today's episode and in other episodes of biblio-sightings, is that the book plays a seminal role in the semiotic realms of society: it sends a message to us, which we might not fully understand or be aware of, but that message signifies ideas of cultural and historical importance, of memory, of awareness. I wonder what archeologists in a thousand years would say to these sculptures: "what is this object they have immortalized here!?" The truth is, though, today we would laugh at a stone sculpture of a Kindle "immortalizing" Harold Washington, because a Kindle's content is supposed to change. Fleeting content, fleeting culture, fleeting history, fleeting memory. E-readers are techno-toys with no semiotic for cultural memory. Books are not only NOT toys, but cultural memory itself. Perhaps instead of being a librarian, I should become a stone carver. It's never too late to change.

Books of Hoarders!

And You Thought You Were Messy?

There is nothing like finding a moldy book, especially if it is a book that you think you might be interested in. Well, today I open with this fine photographic ensemble with some images of the rotting cover of The Encyclopedia of Jazz. Normally, I'd find this sort of thing anathema, simply repulsive (well, I still do!), but for the sake of this exposition, I feel the necessity to share with you kind readers something rather extraordinary. I must admit that this was one of the most shocking book-related experiences I've come across, partly because it was so unexpected, partly because of its proximity to where I live, but mostly because of the extreme living conditions to which I found myself witnessing. The dying and decaying books that I picture here in trash heaps, bags, and other locations were already left for an unseemly end. It was humid and rainy, and the contents of the house I was about to enter were already being dislodged.

Let me begin with how this story unfolded. Without providing the personal details, in order to keep such characters anonymous, I will only say that someone in my neighborhood died, and left their home to be cleaned out and its contents sold. The "cleaner-outer" asked me, as a library professional and "knower" of books, if I could come and take a look at the books in this person's house, to see what they were worth (in order to put them up for sale), if anything. I agreed, of course, both out of a general sense of obligation, and curiosity. For, as you all can guess, I'm always curious about looking at new (or in this case, old) books. Little, very little did I know that what I was about to witness was a veritable scene out of the new television series "Hoarders." For those of you who don't know, Hoarders is more than just a (reality) TV show, it is a phenomenon. And what is so striking about this show is not just that there are people in this country (and presumably this world), who live in utter filth and clutter, but hoards (sorry!) of them! They live above and below piles of trash, garbage, and as viewers of this ghastly show may see in one case, used adult diapers.

The other and perhaps more powerful thing about "Hoarders" has to do with the potency of its images and message. You see, when the show premiered (or at least became popular), there was a nationwide surge in the sense of need to purge one's household, whether needed or not. People did not want to be associated with or even be remotely considered or perceived of as "hoardering" or "being a hoarder." Are you a hoarder? Surely an interesting phenomenon. Now before I even went inside this home, I found that so many items were being piled up and tossed out in the back yard. Such items as this old suitcase marked "Old Letters" and "Accounts." Who knows what was in it specifically...whose old letters? to or from whom? what they were about? There is, of course, a certain sadness that goes along with all this and one wonders why some people don't make better provisions about their property before they move on to the next world. The person cleaning out the house told me that in the basement there were several old suitcases like this, filled with love letters of the two former inhabitants--from when the husband was in the service during WWII. They wrote to each other faithfully and constantly. Now, both gone, the letters languish in forgotten dust. The person cleaning said she didn't know what to do with them.

Now let us be clear: just because you have a lot of books doesn't make you a hoarder..., or does it? We might think back to the grand "book" of books in the 20th century, Elias Canetti's Auto-dea-Fe about a famed and rather mad sinologist and consummate book collector (the character collected tens of thousands of books); this character also talked to his books and envisioned them as humans in very poetic and anthropomorphic dreams. There are people with many, many books, who keep them neatly, rather than in piles of their own messiness and madness. If you have a nice library, then fine. And just because you have borrowed a fair number of books from the library also does NOT "a hoarder you make!" People who enjoy books or like books, also have affections for books and their contents. We borrow books. Someone recently asked me why I had so many books out of from the University library. Two others in the conversation said: "well, how many do you have out." Sheepishly, I said "35." "That's it!!?" they both responded in disbelief. I felt better.

There was a time when I would have more than 200 books out; when I was doing a paper or researching something or studying for exams. Sometimes you just need to take books out. And the odd thing is, about the Regenstein library of the University of Chicago, that in my nearly ten years here in this community and as a borrower in the University's library system, I've almost never had one of my books recalled--maybe one, but one only. That is a stunning sociological statement, I think, regarding this highly read and bibliocentric culture of Hyde Park. One would think there would be overlap. Of course, there are probably a dozen reasons for this, including: students wanting their own books would rather buy them than borrow them; if students can't find material on the shelves, they look elsewhere, buy it, or forget about it; or, perhaps, the University caters to such a highly specialized sort of person that very few subjects or topics overlap, and the need to do book recalls is not there. This would certainly be an interesting topic to research further.

Now that we have satisfactorily digressed into the hoarding phenomenon, let us take a look at what I actually saw and found. Beside this primitive statuette, which sat stoically in the messy and weary garden out back, now being joined by piles and heaps of "old stuff," there was the inside, which struck me with great awe and astonishment.

Though I did not photograph the upstairs, it was in that sector of the home that the piles of debris from hoarding were most severe. In fact, one room itself, was piled completely to the ceiling, with "stuff" occupying nearly every square inch. I could not believe my eyes.

Granted, some of this material had been moved, but for the most part, the scenery had not changed much since the cleaners had come in. Upstairs, as I just mentioned, was so filled with materials that the downstairs had to be fitted with special living equipment for the former tenant. Sleeping in a bedroom was no longer possible and had to be done on the ground floor.

Books, books...everywhere! There were many books. Upstairs there were the books, which I had taken a look at and found to be effectively worthless. They were crumbly paperbacks dating from the 1950s through the 1970s. They had no value save for their use as recycled matter. Now you know me as one who is passionate about books, but these were shameful examples of the publishing industry's deteriorated pulp-book standards. The kind of yellow paged dryness that is so brittle that you cannot even finish the book, because it has fallen apart midway through your read!

I did spy some curiosities among the bunches and piles. I gave up on the second floor's holdings. The yellow pulp books weren't even nicely arranged and had been squashed into piles and behind things. I saw a few select larger tomes, some William L. Shirer histories, but they too were tattered, neglected, abused in their stations. There was this (above), for example, "The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch" by Lewis Carroll.

And I know some people are a bit odd, but to put a book in bondage!? This movie trivia book apparently had some sort of strange relationship with its owners, because, as you can see, it was bound by its former reader in a telephone cord! Surely, this is one of the oddest sights I've seen regarding a book. No respect, indeed!

Since these good folks, who once owned this home, were inclined toward art and all of its illustrious beauties and trappings, I was able to find many fine books on art and travel. I will admit that I am a person who buys books when I travel. In fact, I am a consummate book-travel-buyer (i.e. I must buy a book when I travel). For me, my souvenir, my memory of travels comes from securing some piece of written history, art, culture. Mostly because I want to know about the people and their past when I visit a place. A little trinket or model of the Eiffel Tower is not going to do that for me. I'm not satisfied by 4th rate crafts made in China for croissant-chewing tourist on the Champs Elysees! Let me learn about flaneurs in Paris or writers from Bulgaria or the history of a little street in Trieste...those are the interesting artifacts of travel! Though, I do hope that one day, whenever my days are no more on this earth, that my books have not fallen into rummage sale bags, as a result of compulsive hoarding and uncontrollable tea drinking in some mad dotage; rather, I hope that my books will have been taken care of well, even given to the right places and people, and of course, those library books finally returned. But plan accordingly, my friends, fight those hoarding instincts, and remember: if you ever have a desire to wrap your books in telephone wire, take a deep breath, and reconsider. Come to think of it though, this may be an impossible venture in our future: the telephone wire is really dead. Not the book.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Books and the Chicago Armenian Festival

The Lost Kingdom of Urartu Grills Some Meat for Our Tasting Pleasure

"Tasting grilled meat brought me back to my student days in Jerusalem. So too did the Armenians."

Every year in this great city of Chicago we find various ethnic or cultural festivals celebrating the heritage whence they came. Italian festivals, Japanese festivals, Chinese New Year, and the like. So too do we have the now annual "Taste of Armenia," held each year in the near north suburb of Evanston, IL. Put on by the St. James Armenian Church, the festival blocks off a short stretch of street in front of the church, hoists up a few tarps and tents, unpacks some kids' games, unfolds display tables for books, t-shirts, and trinkets, and rolls out the charcoal pits to grill some fine combos of Armenian-style meats: usually kabobs, steak, and chicken. Perhaps not as large scale or encompassing as the Greek or Italian festivals, the Armenian festival does have a certain element of distance and underrated culture rooted in its history, which makes it more mysterious to most Americans.

By the numbers, and these are estimates, Italian Americans make up ~17.5 million of the US population; Greek Americans, according the US State Department, ~3 million; while Armenian Americans make up 1.5 million. Now that actually sounds substantial, if you don't compare it to the Italian American population. 1.5 million people would mean that there should be 30,000 Armenians living in each US state. Though, I can't imagine there is such a large population in either Alaska or Nebraska, for example, but this would have to take further research and investigation. So the question to you readers now is: "do you know an Armenian?" And if so, "how many?" (No, I won't ask you "have you kissed an Armenian today?" like those silly hats at St. Patrick's day parades ask: "have you kissed an Irishman today?") You might not know it, but you may be able to tell by a person's last name. Armenian surnames usually end in "-ian" or "-yan," usually preceded by a consonant. Like the Armenian composer Aram Khatchaturian.

Well, I'd come to this festival--this "Taste of Armenia,"--with the hope that I'd find some books, especially something either about Armenia or in Armenian. As you see, my first sighting came as I was on the sidewalk at the fair, and I saw a man reading a sizable book, which he then placed on the curb next to him. I thought this would be a fine clandestine shot--something as bad (though not as tasteless) as those nightly news shots about obesity, which follow the rotundity of oblivious pedestrians' posteriors. I never understood that sort of voyeurism. I suppose it sells the news! But here we have a fine book, sitting quietly next to its master, or rather "partner." For better or worse, I didn't see anyone else reading at the festival. It was supposed to be "festive," which implies a sense of interaction and fun being had among people. And the act of reading does not involve either of these things...usually!

Of course, there were many banners and signs promoting other cultural activities. In this sign, we can even see the Armenian language, displayed in its distinct alphabet, which is shared with no other language. The language was developed by the Armenian scholar Mesrop Mashtots in the fourth century, at the request of King Vramshapuh. Now 1,600 years later, the Armenians still enjoy the flavor of this ornate and stylized alphabet. The specific history of Armenia is long and complex, and reaches into the heart of antiquity nearly 3,000 years ago. The first known king of Armenia, Aram (858-844BCE) arose during that century around the same time as the Assyrian kings Tukulti-Ninurta II and Ashur-nasir-pal II. He was followed by a long list of kings until the demise of Urartu itself in the 6th century BCE, with Rusa IV being its last likely leader.

The Kingdom of Armenia itself rose from the ashes of Urartu in ca. 590BCE. Royal Houses were established, such as the Houses of Ervand, Artashes, and Arshak, until the later rise of Christianity in the 4th century. Armenia holds the claim of being the longest continuous Christian country in the world, which by most accounts is accurate, though some scholars might question "what constitutes a country?" It is by mere chance, though, that I'm writing about the Armenian festival today, at the very same time that I came into the possession of a fine book of ancient Armenian history, entitled "The Kingdom of Armania" by M. Chahin and published by Dorset. To its credit, this is where I've culled the historical information I've offered you today. But my interest, education, and knowledge of Armenian culture does not begin here, but more than a decade ago, in a far away land sometimes known as the omphalos mundi (lit. the "world's bellybutton!)

Back in 1997, just as I was about to depart for the holy city of Jerusalem to study ancient language and culture at Hebrew University, I was speaking to a friend, who was of Armenian heritage. She told me that her father had been born in Jerusalem, in the Armenian quarter (Jerusalem's old city has four distinct quaters: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian) and might be able to give me some information about the place and some people to meet. I of course jumped on the opportunity and called her father. We spoke and he told me that he had a friend that he'd gone to kindergarten and grade school with, and he told me his name and that I should contact said friend. Once I arrived in Jerusalem, it took me a few weeks to settle in and get acclimated to the starkly different landscape, culture, school system, and everything else. I still had the name of the Armenian friend written down somewhere, and had been meaning to contact the man, whose name was Torkom Manoogian.

I'd recently met a fine young man of similar interests in Church History, who had studied Russian history and lived in Russia for sometime. This young man, Soren Johnson, would later become a great friend of mine, and who now is one of the leading executives of Prison Fellowship International. Soren and I were in Hebrew class together, along with another religious studies aficionado and author, Tom Levinson, who by chance now lives just blocks from me in Hyde Park and has a son who was in pre-school with my eldest. I'd told them about the Armenian contact, and Soren agreed to call and make an appointment. You see, we soon discovered that Mr. Manoogian was the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem!--the highest priestly office of the Armenian Church in this part of the Middle East. Soren called, and was asked a few questions, and we were granted a visit with the Patriarch. One last question, though, was asked: "What would you like to talk about?" I think Soren said "about the good Patriarch!"

I will pause before I go on, to share with you the insides of the church of St. James in Evanston. It was a small church, but there were many books scattered around, a fine altar, Armenian prayers and other texts displayed, and candles burning in a box full of sand. Though there is a sense of mystery which shrouds orthodox and eastern Christian traditions and liturgy, especially the fuming of chapels with incense or other liturgical smokes, the St. James in this photo is shockingly different--in fact, brighter and cheerier!--than the St. James in Jerusalem, which is antique, dark, lugubrious, and invoking of the highest of high mysteries in the eastern churches. Our appointed day arrived and the three of us headed to the Armenian quarter, where we were greeted by an Armenian priest, who ushered us in. We followed the man down some dark corridors, then up some regal steps, which were guarded on either side by larger-than-life crude-style paintings of luminary Armenian holy men.

We entered into a large room, the size of two or three racket ball courts, with very a high ceiling.
The walls were ornate and the decorations made the whole place feel like the inside of a Hapsburg palace. A large desk sat in the front before a fireplace (if I remember correctly) and the room was a royal blue. We were introduced to and greeted by the Patriarch who had us sit on some couches in front of his desk. "Sit, sit!" he offered.
We sat and Soren and I noticed that on top of a stack of books on the Patriarch's desk was a copy of Stephen R. Covey's #1 bestselling The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And then he began with the old question: "So what would you like to talk about?" Of course, we then again offered what we'd come to talk about: "Tell us about yourself!" we clamored! And he did, holding himself pensively in his chair, he began with the most beautiful and unforgettable line: "I was born in a tent outside of Bagdad in 1919."

The rest of the conversation was a haze, interrupted by the offering of demitasse sized glasses of Sprite by the Patriarch's assistant, to which we gratefully accepted. Sprite with the Armenian Patriarch! Ah, what a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. That was the beginning of my affair with Armenian culture in Jerusalem. I would end up spending another three years there, living, exploring, and experiencing the craziness of that city. After this visit with the Patriarch, Soren began some friendships with other local Armenians, some of whom spoke Russian as he did. There was a regal and reserved priest (or perhaps deacon) who led the St. James Choir of seminarians, whose name was Varoozhan. He was a kind and reflective man, who had a passion for his liturgical music and perhaps also for the tradition of Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), the man whom the Armenians consider the founder of Armenian classical music.

Komitas, as he is affectionately known, is said to have witnessed the Armenian genocide in 1915, after which he went mad. Whatever the story is, he is highly regarded among most Armenians. Varoozhan, the choir director, I have lost track of; so too of the other Armenians I met during my long stay in Jerusalem. I was particularly fond of a wise-cracker young priest named Haig (the Armenian hero of antiquity, I believe related to how Armenians call their country in the Armenian language "Hai(gh)-rastan"). Haig took classes at Hebrew University with me, told jokes, and made replicas of Armenian icons for tourists in the old city. He would tell us stories of his family, which was dispersed all over the Middle East and beyond. His immediately family was in Lebanon, which of course, with him being in Israel, was a difficult task of accomplishing any immediate connection, especially travel.

Haig and I were in an Armenian class together, along with another Armenian priest, whose name I now forget. The other priest was tall, with a long black beard, and somewhat severe looking, almost like Abraham Lincoln, but very balanced and calm. He always wore a black gown and little black liturgical cap. We were in a class on Armenian Hagiography, Church History, and Theology, taught by the ever brilliant Prof. Roberta Ervine, who now teaches at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, just north of New York City. She was a wonderful teacher, and her depth of knowledge about the Armenian Church is profound and legendary in Armenian circles. You may find a photo and information about Dr. Ervine at the following link of the St. Nersess Seminary: . I do recall a lot of talk about the great Gregory the Illuminator, one of the major saints of the Armenian church. And my final paper for the class was a comparative study of Armenian mysticism with Eastern Religious traditions of mysticism, specifically Buddhism.

Returning finally to this country a few years later, I continued my Armenian studies in a small class at the University of Chicago, where I began study of Eastern Armenian, the language of the country of Armenian, distinct from the other major language/dialect of Western Armenian, which is the language spoken by the Armenian diaspora. A good small class, I learned a lot, but the language was (and is!) difficult and requires a great deal of time, preparation, and devotion, which I did not have at the time. Though my Armenian skills have waned considerably, I do remember a choice word or phrase, like my all time favorite word, "Schnorakhalootyoon!" which is the way a person says "Thank you!" in Armenian! What a great word. Even when I first learned it, I spent hours repeating it, because it was beautifully exotic and tongue-teasing! Go ahead, you try it: "Schnorakhalootyoon!" Try it three times fast!

That was all a long time ago, but all good memories of my "Armenian past!" And I am still now and then tempted to jump back into my Armenian studies and Armenian culture, whether it is refreshing my old grammar books printed in Yerevan, sharing a story or some phrases with Armenian students I meet, or going to the local Armenian festival and enjoying some kabobs on a stick. I do have a dream that one day I will travel to Armenia, not simply as a tourist, but to study classical Armenian in the monasteries and Mother See of Holy Etchimadzin, not far from the Armenian capital of Yerevan. But that will have to wait. In the mean time, if you ever get an invitation from an old Armenian to meet another old friend of his, don't just go for the Sprite. You too may have your own personal Patriarch. Of course, the Sprite was good too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Books, Mushrooms, and Thanksgiving

Who Said Mushrooms Can't be Fun?

So there are many of you out there who are big fans of Harry Potter and the J.K.Rowling series. And I'm sure there are a few hobbit fans out there as well. But let me ask you, are there any "mushroom elf" fans? Long before Ms. Rowling sat on a train from Manchester to London and had a vision of a young boy attending wizardry school, a couple of young brothers named Knaust from upstate New York were cultivating a variety of edible "table" mushrooms from their own magical brews and earthly soil concoctions. And along with the help of some elves, they were able to not only establish a good business, but a true kingdom of mushrooms: the largest producer in the world, in fact, for a score and some of years. The brothers had started their business around 1919, learning their trade and skill from French mushroom farmers working in New York city (so one story goes), and then put their skills into action in the Hudson Valley during the 1920s. At one point, a local artist was hired to come up with some characters to adorn the cans, for marketing and selling the product. And the "mushroom elf" was born!

You might wonder what this story has to do with anything, especially books, or why I've even chosen it today. Well, this is actually a family story. Herman K. Knaust was my great-grandfather and Henry his brother. On a recent trip to visit my family, I came across some wares of the old mushroom kingdom, including the two large mushroom cans above and this lovely little "Cavern Mushroom Recipes" book ("Cavern" because many were grown in our family caverns!), compiled by the family (I believe my great-grandmother may have had a hand in this at one point). Again, look at the elf on the cover, in black and white. Though, this elf appears to be a bit more sly looking, and even a tad more hirsute than the younger looking elves on the tin cans above. In our many adventures to find books in various places, I think this may be the first experience with a cookbook, and certainly our first "mushroom book!" I'd be curious to see what sort of market response a mushroom cultivator would get nowadays with trying to sell his or her products with elves?

In the 21st century, we're always concerned with immediate access to materials and information. Things have certainly changed a great deal from the 1930s, -40s, and 50s. I do own some cookbooks, but when I want to make a recipe, I often "google" the recipe and try to find the best version online, then cook. Buying cookbooks doesn't seem completely out of date, but if you are not a person who is devoted entirely to cooking or are not one who simply loves the craft of food beautifcation and "tastification," then having lots of cookbooks may not be the way to go; and let's not forget that purchasing cookbooks can be a costly venture. This little mushroom recipes book not only appears to have been inexpensive, but may have been provided free to customers. But I'll have to check on that for you. And as for mushroom growers today? According to the American Mushroom Institute, well, if I've done my math right, there are only just over 100 mushroom producers in the United States today, producing anywhere from 1/2 million pounds to over 20 million pounds of mushrooms annually. In this last photo is a vintage pose of my great-grandfather inspecting mushrooms at one of his many mushroom growing facilities. This was taken, probably around the time he was working on his atomic-storage project: the purchase of an old ore mine in upstate New York and conversion into an information and archival preservation center. This venture was the start of what today is known as Iron Mountain corporation, the world leader in information preservation and management. And all from mushrooms! So, if you are ever at a loss for ideas, especially for a big meal like Thanksgiving, and you can't come up with a way to cook that darn table variety mushroom, don't look online for "mushroom recipes," or anything like that. Call an elf. You never know what secrets they may hold.