Monday, November 30, 2009

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.

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