I have spent a lifetime as an avid reader. Do young people still read? Do they have time left to read when they are not playing electronic games on their cell phones or other electronic devices? One of my daughters-in-law has a Kindle e-book, which she loves to use as her reading device. I cannot make that leap in my own life. I have a stack of books on the armrest on my big wooden chair in the living room where I do most of my reading. I read about a dozen books at the same time, along with numerous periodicals and journals. I read my journals on my exercise bike in the patio, where I spend a full hour every morning of the week. I like the physical heft and look of a book. I enjoy the physical behaviors required of the reader, holding the book in a comfortable position, sitting in my favorite chair, just turning the next page, or flipping back pages to an earlier chapter to remind me of some detail I had missed or forgotten, all the small maneuvers that holding a real book entails. I value the appearance of a book, the design of the jacket, the style of the printed text, the visual attraction of illustrations and images, all the embellishments of books as revered objects. Is this because I am old and thus old- fashioned? Is reading a real book just a habit soon obsolete? Is the published book just another failed technology doomed to disappear?
I am a collector of objects. Among the objects I collect are pottery and books. I subscribe to many ceramic periodicals that have truly beautiful images of pottery but I know that there is nothing so satisfying as engaging a real three dimensional pot right in front of you. It is just not the same experience. I take the same attitude with books. I spend a lot of time at my computer writing blogs and books. I also do a bit of reading at the computer, mainly received email messages or viewing websites of interest. But I could never accept the computer as my chief reading instrument. It is too big to hold. I love books and one central way I can demonstrate my affection and fondness for what they contain and the pleasure they give me is by holding them. When I visit potters in their studios or galleries, I can observe the same need on their part to take physical possession of the ceramic object, to hold it and feel its surface and to gauge with their hands the thinness of the walls and the thickness of the foot, to run their fingers over the glaze, to feel the smoothness or roughness of the surface. People who love objects need to touch the objects of their devotion. I need to hold and touch pots and books. One of the great compromises I have had to make in my own pottery gallery was the need to apply earthquake putty to the bottom of my pots. Given the real dangers of California earthquakes, it is sadly necessary. But sometimes I just can’t help it. Occasionally I will walk over to a shelf, slowly twist the pot, lifting it carefully and taking full possession of this beloved object and cradle it in my hands.
We know that the making of books is an ancient craft that is still flourishing. There is a complex aesthetics involved in the choice of paper, type of binding, font, and many other elements of design, lay out, and the making of the book as a hand/ crafted object. We also know that there are small, independent printers who seek to perpetuate the publication of these kinds of books. They might be marginal compared to the big publishing companies that can run thousands of copies of best sellers but they seek quality and beauty in the finished product. Many great artists have also illustrated such books. I do not want to see this art and craft go the way of so many small, independent booksellers who could not compete with the franchise bookstores. Is there still room in our globalized world for this kind of hand created quality? When I go to the Huntington Library in nearby San Marino I see many famous original books, opened with often yellowed pages of great age, secured in glass cases, ranging from the beginning of printing press with the Gutenberg Bible to the modern books of California authors such as Jack London, as well as contemporary authors. These books form the cultural icons of our rich legacy of the printed word. I somehow cannot see some day in the future when I visit the Huntington Library and find in the same glass cases e-books displaying the same texts on small screens. Surely you would agree it would not be the same kind of quality experience.
Aside from the book as an aesthetic artifact created by master craftspeople, we also need to discuss what we use them for. Books have a vital function in human civilization. People read them and obtain knowledge and wisdom that is not available anywhere else. I want to talk about the act of reading. This involves the behavior of the reader and the approach to the printed page that would extract the greatest value for those who devote countless hours of their lives to the company of books. We will continue in this discussion to draw analogous examples with pottery. How do you approach the engagement of a pot? What is the nature of the active observer seeking to maximize pleasure and meaning when in the company of ceramic art? We can ask the same questions about books.
Too often both ‘art appreciation’ and ‘reading instruction’ lessons in educational institutions render both kinds of engagements passive events for the observer and reader. Youth are instructed to memorize information about the name of the artist, period, art style, technique, and other data of that nature. Similarly, children taught to read go through the mechanical details of the grammar of language and the retention of the content obtained from the printed word as a duty of memorization, subject to testing. Can you teach the joy and great pleasure of living with art and craft as icons of beauty and the noble offspring of human imagination and creativity? Can you teach youth how to live with books as friends that open the windows of the world to you? That seems all too rarely to come from a lesson in a classroom. What can it come from and how do you help people develop that capacity? The actual lived experience of engaging the pot or book is not the same thing as the information about the pot and the book. Do you know what I am talking about?
I will offer you now a quote that I think will reinforce what I am talking about. It is a quote I employed in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”. This excerpt in my book is from one of the finest books written about ceramics, in fact that is the title of the book, “Ceramics” by Philip Rawson. In the Foreword to this book, Wayne Higby, an important American potter, speaks of Rawson’s ideas about how to experience pottery,
“He recommends looking at the forms of pottery not just to classify them, but to read them as symbols analogous to sense experience. This recommendation has far-reaching implications since, in our society, critical awareness is primarily achieved by acquiring factual knowledge rather than by developing the resources of intuitive feeling. The emphasis on factual knowledge has isolated art from the general flow of Western culture by reserving it for a relatively small group of ‘informed’ individuals. The very fact that pottery is accessible to everyone by virtue of its immediate connection with human experience has disqualified it in the past as a major art form. Rawson introduces this accessibility factor as an important aesthetic consideration and implies that the power of pottery as art lies in its ability to communicate to a wide audience by expressing human sensuous life. He asks the reader to become more aware of emotional responses to pottery in order to give depth and clarity to learned perception.”
There is a lot to think about in this quote. How do we learn to experience ‘human sensuous life’ with pots and books without getting caught in the all too familiar trap first learned in school, when we were taught to reduce everything to ‘factual knowledge’ rather than the encouragement of the development of ‘intuitive feeling’? Here the tail wags the dog. If you can’t test intuitive feeling on a standardized exam, and the easy lure of testing factual information is all too available, than the emotional and intuitive dimensions of human feelings and experiences are simply ignored. Even more than that, the implication of this abandonment is that human feelings (the very core of a complex aesthetic) are really a trivial and superficial realm of human experience. I would add another critical wrinkle to this conversation, since I am a man commenting on the thoughts of two other men, Rawson and Higby. Traditionally in Western society it was believed that women, given their highly emotional and fragile state, existed as emotional creatures but us men were capable of transforming the world into tough, durable facts. So I am rather proud as a man to be in the company of these two other modern men in conceding that the richness and complexity of the subjective emotions are as important as the objective world of factual knowledge. The aesthetic significance of human culture is dependent on this awareness. I am going to continue this discussion in future blogs. I do wish to conclude this blog wishing all of you the very best of the holiday season and a happy New Year.