Tuesday, September 11, 2012

`Good Heft, Hard Binding'

Having lived a disorderly life for many years, my instinct now is for tidiness. I make my bed and promptly wash the dishes. My office is monastic, the wastebasket emptied, pens and pencils aligned, books neatly shelved. I’ve never fallen for the romance of the messy desk. Even my prose is cleaned and pressed. So when a reader suggested I visit the website of Ephraim Rubenstein, an artist who specializes in still-life paintings of books, I was pleased and appalled. As to the latter, look at Still Life with Discarded Books III and books shoveled into a heap like gravel. The authors and titles are not important. Even lousy books deserve better treatment. 

It appears Rubenstein works from life. The same volumes appear repeatedly in his paintings, lowering the real-world destruction quotient, I suppose. Some books appear worn from age and normal use. Others are torn and charred. The painter preserves the anonymity of most of his books, blurring author and title. Book Pile XXXIV, from the tower series, is built in part with Modern Library Giants. The seventh volume from the bottom might be Studs Lonigan, the edition I read as a kid. 

Library is reassuring. One volume of the two-volume Remembrance of Things Past, orange-, pale green- and black-covered Penguins, and a postcard of Dickens. The books appear well-worn but clean and neatly arranged. The implication is the owner is a reader, not an interior decorator. I’m reminded of a scene from Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night (1999): 

“On the table beside her are a lamp, a green glass ashtray shaped like a leaf with a stem, and two books: an old hardback copy of Jennie Gerhardt with a faded title, and a fat library book called The Arms of Krupp. A rattling floor fan blows directly at her, stirring her kimono and fluttering the blue smoke that drifts to the ceiling. Through the trembling smoke Haverstraw sees the stairway banister and the old bookcase in which he can make out a broken-spined Modern Library Giant edition of Studs Lonigan and two volumes of The Decline of the West. On top of the bookcase, cutting into the line of the balusters, an Unabridged Webster’s, Second Edition, lies open, one side higher than the other.” 

Even better, a character contemplates using Dreiser’s 592-page novel as a weapon: “Jennie Gerhardt would have laid him out cold. Good heft, hard binding: a brick of a book. Jennie to the rescue. Social value of art.”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

Thanks for the introduction to Rubenstein's fine paintings. He surely is in the great Dutch tradition, which several of the earlier American still life painters carried on. Books in such paintings tell stories.