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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Books by the foot

I loved this Talk of the Town piece on how the Strand is providing Books-by-the-Foot services to Steven Spielberg for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. They really pay attention to detail for placing the right books on the set of Indy's library from the year 1957:
Downstairs on the shopping floor, Bibbi Taylor, a Strand manager, perused the Africa aisle for Indiana Jones material. Taylor has a discerning eye for historical-looking history books. She quickly eliminated a rust-colored Paul Theroux and a baby-blue Alexandra Fuller (both were too recent), and zeroed in on a beat-up orange hardback. “This looks good,” she said, pulling out “The White Nile,” Alan Moorehead’s classic history of Egyptian exploration. “It has that older worn look, which makes sense, because Indy’s on the road all the time.” When Taylor saw the copyright date, 1960, she recanted. “That’s pushing it,” she said.

I spent many Sunday afternoons tagging behind my parents in furniture stores, looking at the display bookshelves which had obviously been filled by such a service. The odd subset of these miscellaneous volumes is the Reader's Digest Condensed Books, which were often laid open on the elegant walnut desks with the pages fanned open and folded into intricate book origami as though this was a cool way to display the abridgements. The Reader's Digest version of Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle had definitely not had its racy scenes condensed from it; indeed, the book was splayed open and folded suggestively to just one such scene.

One day, I convinced my parents that I desperately needed one of the books on the furniture store's shelves--no, I couldn't get it at the library; no, I couldn't get it at a bookstore; no, really, it was rare; yes, it was just a paperback, but surely they knew how hard mass-market paperbacks are to find if they were thirty years old; yes, I realized that I was pleading more emotionally than I ever had at a bookstore. We had been there for hours. The salesperson was so weirded out by my request that she gave it to me for free. It was an anthology of early twentieth-century American short stories, but there are pieces in it that I've never seen in other places--not that I'm out scouring other furniture stores for obscure paperback anthologies.

My mom told me the (possibly apocryphal?) story of someone who said he had spent his whole adult life looking for a particular volume, only to find it in the display case at a furniture store. He tried grab his prize from the shelf, only to discover that the store had impaled it on a metal rod to keep the books-by-the-foot in a easily transportable unit.

The Indiana Jones library must be one of the best jobs that the Strand has ever gotten! I love the scenes of Indy reading in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where he has to find the site of the lost library at Alexandria. Those are some of my favorite reading movie scenes, if only for the suggestion that call numbers can reveal a secret code that will lead to sarcophagi and fireballs. From the New Yorker article:
Taylor weaved around some undergraduates and shifted two bookcases to the left. “Indy’s a philosopher of sorts, so I’d want some ancient-Greek stuff,” she said. She leaned down to a lower shelf and pulled out a green book with a faded spine. “Oh, yes! A ’39 ‘Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture,’ ” she said. “This could be something that he’s read many times.”

“Paideia” in hand, Taylor recalled other recent projects. For a drug dealer in “American Gangster,” she gathered leather-looking books. For the gym-trainer character that Frances McDormand plays in an upcoming Coen brothers film, she collected self-help titles and romance novels (“a lot of Fabio”). Indiana Jones, though, was clearly her favorite client. “Dr. Jones, he’s my hero,” Taylor said. “I get to get inside his mind, touch the books that Harrison Ford will touch.”

Indy's father's notebook of maps and clippings is one of my favorite screen representations of the literary miscellany (that, and Count Almasy's from The English Patient). I aspired to have a notebook exactly like his when I was growing up; I imagine much of the Moleskine fortune comes from people with similar dreams of compiling Highly Significant Miscellanies. I'm always interested to see how directors deal with scenes of reading and writing in films--a search for the elixir of life is one way to make reading seem like a vital act--and the compilation of a miscellaneous notebook seems like an easy task to render visually because you can include maps, bits of paper, snapshots, and other ephemera. Then you can construct parts in the script for the miscellaneous nature of the notebook to cause a problem or tell a story about how an item made it into the book. These scenes probably lend themselves to more interesting visuals than the predictable shots of halting keys on a typewriter or furrowed brows.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Oct 03, 05:26:00 PM:
Alice, we had not been in the furniture store 'for hours.' Time is different in a furniture store, quite a bit slower.

And we didn't spend all that many Sunday afternoons in furniture stores. Remember that we didn't actually have a dining room table, for example, until you and Jack were pretty much grown up. Last year, in fact. For Thanksgiving we used to borrow a large folding utility table from the office.

Note to researchers of Alice's past: we ate together almost every night, just at the kitchen table.

Remember also that people would walk into our house, look around uneasily, and say something like "what a nice open space."

These furniture deficiencies in part reflect my anxieties--of patriarchy and also of taste. My mother used to say the words "Ethan Allen" with a longing sigh, and never worked herself up to buying anything at that temple of middle-class taste, even after she certainly had the money to do so.

But our furniture deficiencies also speak to a certain lack of ongoing commitment to shop. If we had really spent so many Sundays and so many hours in furniture stores, my anxieties would have become dulled and we would have had a fuller house. I think.

But yes, I remember the book well. The hardest part about that acquisition was figuring out how to make it happen. The book, of course, had no SKU, no barcode, no category, no identity in furniture or accessory terms.

A request to buy something that is not buyable, after all, violates the social contract. Especially for Sunday shoppers.

Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Oct 04, 12:19:00 PM:
I once read an essay, which I thought was by Nicholson Baker, on the topic of books as decoration. He writes about traditional British pubs who always have a wall of old books, which have usually been cut off at the spine by a table saw to make them shallow and to save space. I thnnk he also made an effort to read some of the books used as decoration in a country inn he visited. I googled for it just now and could not find it. I think it appeared in Granta?

Also, there is a part of Amos Oz's "Tales of Love and Darkness" where as a child he arranges his own library by book height and invites the scorn of his scholarly dad.
Blogger Alice on Sun Oct 07, 03:23:00 PM:
I don't know the Nicholson Baker essay, but my friend Paige has reminded me of the tawdriet side of books-as-decoration:

Our high school reunion afterparty was held at a bar in downtown ABQ called The Library. "It sounds literary!" I said to Paige as we drove down there. Little did we know...

It was indeed book-themed, with bookcases and books-by-the-foot lining the walls, but the barmaids were dressed as slutty Catholic schoolgirls and the whole place was pretty sleazy. As I walked in, I realized why my former classmates were so slyly eager to invite me--they wanted to know just how big of a feminist freak-out I'd have. I made them buy me drinks to quell my indignation.

Paige says the Library is the hottest spot in downtown ABQ to this day.