In an exhibition featuring Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts a few years ago, I found a small framed drawing in a far corner. The image was bizarre: a round-breasted woman holding a fig leaf on strings over prominent male genitalia. The title of the piece
was Exquisite Corpse, the name the Surrealists gave to an old parlour game known as Consequences.
Exquisite Corpse is a kind of blind collaboration. The game begins when one person draws a head at the top of the page, then folds over the paper to conceal the image from the next person, who then draws the chest, handing the paper back and forth (or around the parlour) until the entire character is drawn and the image — often funny, always strange, and definitely accidental — is revealed.
In the Café Gluck on the outskirts of Vienna, in the fading years of the Empire, Jakob Mendel sits surrounded by heaps of catalogues and books. An itinerant bibliophile denied a license for permanent trade, he sets up at a table when the café opens and stays until closing, his portable bookshop a secret except to the initiated. Even so, his book table is a mecca for booklovers and collectors, for Mendel is blessed with the magic of perfect memory and knows the contents of every book he sells — a mind stuffed fuller more than any expert, any librarian, any corporate whiz.
Year-end is a time of holiday celebration. It’s also a time of taking stock, of looking Janus-like at what has transpired and what is yet to come. A time of resolutions and reaffirmations, and stoking the mind and heart with new, unimagined thoughts.
“The Weighing of the Heart,” one of 192 spells, incantations, and rituals that make up The Book of the Dead
, describes how the heart of a deceased will be set into a tray on one side of a large scale. In the other tray, a feather from Ma’at, goddess of truth. If the heart balances the feather of truth, the dead may continue their journey into the afterlife. If the heart outweighs the feather, Ammat the devourer—a crocodile-headed creature with a cat’s body and hippopotamus hindquarters—will snatch the human heart from the scale and gobble it down. Read more
The tower of books on a bookseller’s front table swells the newly published author’s heart with joy. She swoons, imagining all the happy readers laying down their hard-earned dollars to take this book home, where they will slowly turn the pages, revelling in her story, finally shelving her book with all their other treasured tomes. This is the fantasy.
Fall is prize season, with awards tumbling down like apples from orchard trees. Many bookish folk fashion their winter reading lists from the finalists, thinking to broaden their reading reach. But what if the prizes themselves create enclaves into which only certain writers are allowed?
Imagine listening to Maggie deVries’ Rabbit Ears
in Vancouver’s downtown east side, among the runaways, addicts, and women of the street she portrays. Or any David Adams Richards book while walking the shore of the broad Miramichi. Or canoeing north of Yellowknife in the company of Liz Hay’s Late Nights on Air.
Now imagine a story written to take you to a specific place, where what you see and hear and smell dives you deep, deep, deep into the words. That’s ambient literature.
Last seen: The Convict Lover
, at the Halifax International Airport, in the women’s washroom closest to the Clearwater lobster shop. Reported by Urban Kitten. Currently on the loose, travelling the world.
When Buenos Aires was the World Book Capital in 2011, the city constructed an 82-foot, wire-mesh tower that entrapped 30,000 used books donated by libraries, embassies, and individuals. Visitors climbed stairs inside the “Tower of Babel,” reading the titles and listening to Marta Minujín, the installation artist who conceived the project, repeating the word “book” in dozens of languages.
Don Vincente wanted just one thing: to own the sole surviving copy of Furs e ordinations
, printed in 1482 by Lamberto Palmart, Spain’s first printer. Vincente ran a Barcelona bookshop stocked with books he’d plundered from ancient monasteries, including the one near Tarragona where he once lived as a monk. When the Furs
finally came up for auction, he bid everything he had, but it wasn’t enough. The book went to his rival Paxtot, whose house mysteriously burst into flames a few nights later. The bookseller burned to death, but the precious Furs
was discovered unharmed in Vincente’s shop. At the trial, Don Vincente’s lawyer produced a second copy of the rare book. “You see,” he argued convincingly, “the one in Vincente’s shop was not necessarily Paxtot’s.”
“Execute me now!” moaned Don Vincente. “My copy is not the only one!”