Memory Palace

Last Monday I had the opportunity to see two editions of Hosoe Eikoh’s Barakei (alternately titled Killed by Roses or Ordeal by Roses). The 1963 original, designed by Sugiura Kohei was under glass so I wasn’t able to see more that one spread and the slipcase, but I did get to see the 1971 version that was re-edited by Mishima Yukio, the writer and model for the series, and designed and illustrated by Yokoo Tadanori. Supposedly the whole project was done as a memorial for Mishima who committed ritual suicide shortly before the book’s release.

Hosoe Eikoh: Ordeal by Roses

The book is phenomenal. First of all, it is big, 15 1/4 x 21 1/4 in. (38.735 x 53.975 cm) and unfolding the 4 panels of the case reveals the black velvet bound volume resting on the torso of Yokoo’s colorful saint-like representation of Mishima impaled by roses which, in turn, overlaps a vaguely Indian deity. The process definitely has religious overtones which were amplified by the fact that, to see the book, I had to visit a library’s special collection and the book was placed on a kind of foam pedastal for viewing.

The whole experience got me thinking about my last post about libraries and how I can recall various libraries and books that I found there, experiences that I consider important. In contrast, I can’t recall being in awe (as I was looking at Barakei) with anything I have seen on a computer screen. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen a lot of interesting things, but there is something about the mediation of the screen, or the elimination of some senses (touch and smell) that keeps the experience from reaching the same level. On some level I’m just predisposed to treating books with more reverence than computers even though at the most basic level they are both carriers of information.

Reverence is also a word I would use to describe Höfer’s images of libraries both in terms of how Höfer treats the spaces and how the builders originally constructed them. For the most part, the buildings shown are not just storehouses for inanimate objects, these are palaces build to house and celebrate knowledge. Thinking of palaces of knowledge, in turn, took me back Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, a book that also touches on the idea of storing knowledge though the difference is the spaces Ricci creates are conceptual rather than physical. Ricci was a 16th century Jesuit missionary who used mnemonic strategies to both learn Chinese and spread the teachings of the Catholic church in China. The gist of the system is to create a space in your mind and fill it with objects/images that will help you remember a specific bits of information. The more specific and distinct the space is the easier it will be to remember the desired information. There is an interesting thread here of the movement from the internal to the external in terms of storage of information which also includes the subset of analog to digital, but that’s another discussion entirely. One thing I will say, however, is that I agree with Umberto Eco in his introduction to Höfer’s book, there is something to be said for browsing the stacks of a library.

Now what’s so important about the problem of access to the shelves? One of the misunderstandings that dominate the concept of libraries is that you go into one to look for a book whose title you already know. In reality it often happens that you do go to a library because you want a book whose title you know, but the principle function of the library, at least the function of the library in my house and of that of any friend we may chance to visit, is to discover books whose existence we never suspected, only to discover that they are of extreme importance to us. Of course, it’s true that this discovery can be made by leafing through a catalog, but there’s nothing more revealing and exciting than exploring the shelves that contain a collection of books on a certain subject–something that you wouldn’t be able to discover in a catalogue ordered by authors’ names–and to find another book beside the book you went to find, one that you weren’t looking for but that emerges as being of fundamental importance.

As Eco wrote about libraries he liked to visit in Toronto and at Yale I though back to some of the libraries I have visited and books that I relate to those specific times in my life. The library I frequented most growing up was the old West Tisbury library on Music Street a small two-story building where you had to climb a narrow stairway to get to the children’s section. The books that I can remember borrowing multiple times include Bulfinch’s Mythology and David McCauley’s Pyramid. The Vineyard Haven library was more modern and though I don’t remember any specific books there I do recall a quilt they had hanging on display. The quilt had panels done by different people, each depicting a different local scene. One of the panels was done by my grandmother and in the scene were sailboats with the initials representing me and my brothers. The Vineyard Haven library was also where I first encountered the kind of computerized index that would eventually replace card catalogues. As you may have guessed I loved the card catalogue as well as the sign out cards that used to be in books. You could look in the back of a book and see the last person to take it out and it’s history stamped in ink.

College opened up new libraries that were both broader and more specific. I studied among the stacks at Middlebury taking breaks to browse the aisles at random. Senior year I had my own carrel. The book that best represents those days is Nelson’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary. The RISD library (the old one on Benefit Street, not the new Fleet library which I have yet to visited) was a great example of what a library reading room, a large open room, but not too large, high ceilings, long tables, books all around including a on a mezzanine level reached by short spiral staircases around the room. Off of the main reading room was a section of the stacks that included design and photography books. That’s where, during a random bit of browsing, I first got to know the work of Josef Koudelka in his book Exiles. Most recently the cozy SFAI library perched atop one of the city’s many hills is a place I like to visit and I’m just beginning to acquaint myself with the libraries at Stanford University which is where I saw both volumes of Barakei.

Thinking of all these places, I question whether a completely digital archive can reproduce the library experience. Maybe I’m clinging to the past. I don’t dispute the fact that there are things a digital archive can do that a physical library cannot. On the subject of access alone there is no questioning the value of being able to make information available to a larger audience. But until it can recreate the serendipity of finding the thing you didn’t know you were looking for and the experience of seeing a book like Barakei in person there is still a place for the library.

One thought on “Memory Palace

  1. I have to agree with you in terms of the difference between experiencing something on screen and as a physical object in book or print form. I have always found it much harder to immerse myself in a computer screen. Perhaps it is something to do with the sense that there is so much other information that is contained within a screen, it is a less singular object than a book or a print. I also agree regarding Barakei, which is an absolute masterpiece of a book. Actually I think Hosoe’s Kamaitachi and most recent A Butterfly Dream are also up there. If you ever get a chance to see those at a library like the ones that you mention, I highly recommend it.

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