Thursday, December 16, 2010

Neon Orange Baptism

I'm sorry, faithful readers, for having abandoned you during the last month and a half. Alas, I became very busy, and in doing so, I became happy. And my track record of writing while actually enjoying my life is pretty bad. However, I am now prepared to fill you in on all the exciting details.

In November, the New York Public Library conservation lab finally put me to work in a serious way. I spent two and a half weeks in the collections care lab, repairing case-bound reference books. Case-bound books are like the standard hardback books you buy in any mega-store today: pulp boards, cloth or paper covers, and a hollow spine. Over time, the cloth often tears on either side of the spine, or the text falls out of the cover, or both. I fixed seventeen books with these types of problems.

Grace and I examine the posters glued into the magic scrapbook. Photo by Sarah Reidell.

Next, I started a fantastic project with Grace Owen, the conservator for the NYPL Library for the Performing Arts. Together, we are conserving 84 magic posters and three window cards that were glued into a scrapbook from the American Society of Magicians. The scrapbook paper has become incredibly brittle, and the spine of the scrapbook is missing, which means that the folded posters are often the only thing holding the scrapbook pages together. With every turn of the pages, the posters tear and lose more of their vulnerable edges. (For more information on the scrapbook, see my blog posting here.)

Cleaning the surface of a Houdini poster. Photo by Denise Stockman.

Because the scrapbook structure has been so damaging, we have decided to conserve the posters without re-binding them. This has involved thoroughly documenting them and their condition issues, choosing a less-damaged set of posters for our initial treatment batch, surface cleaning them with latex sponges, testing the solubility of their inks, and bathing them (as the inks allow) in pH-conditioned deionized water. The cleaned posters are then lined with long-fibered, medium-weight mulberry paper and wheat starch paste to give them support and mend their tears and losses. If necessary, filled areas of loss are toned to minimize the appearance of damage.

Grace with the unfolded, three-sheet Germain poster before its bath.

This week, I received my baptism as a "real" book and paper conservator when I submerged five conjoined posters in a bath of warm water and saw clouds of neon orange ink puff from the stack of wet paper. One of the posters I had tested, which had shown no sensitivity to any of our potential bathing solutions, was in fact highly soluble. And, of course, it was one of the largest posters in the whole scrapbook: about 6 feet, 4 inches long and 3 feet wide, made of three large sheets of chromolithographed paper seamed together with adhesive, and folded into eighths to be glued into the scrapbook. It was also torn and mended in multiple places, with complex and interlocking folds. Now Grace and I had to stop it from bleeding, separate it from the other posters that were glued to the pages around it, and unfold it—all while it was soaking wet. Ever tried to perform complex maneuvers with a wet paper bag?

Grace rescuing the separated sheets of the Germain poster.

Actually, I was quite proud of our efforts. I did not panic. I helped Grace as she added cold water to the warm bath to slow down the ink loss, detached the posters surrounding our bleeding wizard (a Chautauqua-circuit gentleman by the name of Germain), and air-lifted the victim to a light table covered with blotters for triage. Together, we managed to unfold the poster and to separate it into its three constituent sheets. We also used cotton swabs to mop up the adhesive residue, which the solubilized ink had begun to turn a hot pink color. All of this before I had a chance to eat breakfast. We were finally able to stop for lunch at 1 p.m.

The aftermath: rescued posters soaking quietly, the Sunkist-soda-colored Germain bathwater.

And now I, too, have the horror story required for every paper conservator: "I remember the time I put an object in the bath and the color started to float off the surface..." I feel like part of an august and learned society. I'm gratified to know that I can keep a good head on my shoulders when things start to fall apart. I'm also pleased to know that, even with the ink loss, Germain the Wizard is better off now than he was before: bound to highly acidic paper, carelessly folded, mended with lined notebook paper, and slowly turning to confetti.

I don't know why the ink ran when my tests said it shouldn't. We'll be doing more testing before we line the poster. Perhaps the adhesive joining the sheets, or the poster's faded and light-damaged areas, were more sensitive to moisture. We'll try to find out, since lining generally involves dampening the posters again and aligning their lost pieces on a light table before applying the backing paper—something like putting together a large, soggy jigsaw puzzle. Together, Grace and I will work magic on Germain.

Aligning a wet poster for lining on the light table. Photo by Jonah Volk.

Today, I had a moment of epiphany as I massaged the two halves of a torn, wet poster into alignment. This bizarre work—this tedious, labor-intensive, delicate work—is something I'm tremendously happy to do. As odd as it sounds, I was born to put damaged paper objects back together. I will make the illegible legible, the moldy clean, the torn whole. I will take that floppy, broken-backed, dog-eared, water-damaged volume and make it readable again. I'm a book and paper conservator. I rescue knowledge. I keep ideas alive.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Stranded on foreign planet. Send translator.

This morning I had another strange dream. Most of it has disappeared, but I remember that a bunch of adults—including myself and my ex-husband—had returned to an elementary school class as students. We weren't being punished; it wasn't remedial education, it was more like a reminder of what being a kid was like. We had a vocabulary test of some sort, in a bright, cheerful room with a blackboard at the front, a smiling teacher, and colorful cartoon animals on the walls. We sat in little chairs with attached desks, and miraculously we fit. For the test, we had to come up with five different words containing the word "comfort." I went into my usual competitive-thinking mode, coming up with "comfortless," "comfortable," "comforting," "discomfort," and "comforter." 

My ex-husband could not come up with a single word. (This is unfair to his character. He was in fact an excellent storyteller, with a real ear for language and a talent for onomatopoiea.) He was forced to play a game of charades with the teacher, telling her about some little cushioned objects they used at his construction job, trying to work his way to—what? Comforter? Watching, I felt both smug and embarrassed. And then my alarm clock made its pinball sound and I woke up, silently mouthing words to myself as I swam into consciousness: Comfortable. Comfortless. Comforting.

I wonder whether this dream has anything to do with my mild aphasia. Although it might come as a surprise to anybody who reads my writing, I'm often stumped for words and names when I'm speaking. An old-fashioned pencil sharpener becomes "That thing, you know, with the handle. That turns." Or I come up with the wrong word altogether: "Put your dirty clothes in the dishwasher. I mean the oven. I mean the washing machine!" At my last internship, I told my supervisor that my brain was like a room full of filing cabinets that were stuck shut. All the information was in there, but some of the doors were jammed. If I had a particularly nonverbal day, I could tell her that my filing cabinets were locked, and she would know what I meant.

My husband, however, is special because he can read my mind. Early on in our relationship, I was trying to tell him about a movie I had seen. I couldn't remember the title, so I decided to list the actors. This also failed. "It had, you know, that guy, the weird one. He dances in that music video?" That was all it took. Derek said, "Christopher Walken." From that moment, I knew we were meant to be together. He was my translator!

Perhaps the dream expresses my sadness at being distanced from my translator, my companion, my comforter. In New York during the week, I watch myself flail around, miming a life. Everybody else has all the words. I stay busy, eat alone, and dream.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Last weekend, my amazing husband decided I needed a break from big city life. When I climbed off the Bolt Bus to Philadelphia on Friday, he promptly bundled me into his car and drove me north again for a surprise weekend trip. I began to be delightfully suspicious when we entered the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area, but when we drove through Milford onto ever darker and more winding roads, I was concerned. Where on earth was he taking me?

Eventually we ended up in what appeared to be a dead-end. After two false starts—one into somebody else's driveway and one into a defunct trail—we finally found our pitch-black private road, our own driveway, and a tiny cabin that loomed in the headlights. Inside: bliss.

We stayed up until three o'clock in the morning enjoying beer and popcorn in front of the fire (something we have sorely missed in our Philadephia row house). Kira the dog fell asleep long before we did. In the morning, I ventured outdoors to see the creek I could only hear the night before, gurgling along below the stone terrace behind the cabin. I discovered that the leaves were already gorgeous shades of gold and orange and russet.

Later that afternoon, we drove back down Route 209 to hike to two waterfalls we had passed in the dark the night before: Ramondskill Falls (the longest waterfall in Pennsylvania) and Dingmans Falls (the second-longest). Derek climbed a shaley mountainside and spotted a red dragonfly. I got a new stamp in my National Parks Passport. We visited a waterwheel and bought some excellent cookies. By the time we went back to the cabin, my smiling muscles were tired.

Middle Raymondskill Falls

Red dragonfly

Snaky roots

That night we made fondue from wine and cheese Derek had brought from home, and sat in front of the fire slurping it up with chunks of poorly baked Shoprite bread. It was fantastic. I've never been so happy to be kidnapped. It's good to know that, even while New York City roars around me, a little cabin sits in quiet woods, waiting for my return. And that I have the most thoughtful husband in the world.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Two Dreams and a Sunset

The sky was gorgeous on the way home tonight: a field of flat, broken clouds awash in pink light. "Red at night, sailors' delight," my parents (the sailors) used to say. So I guess we can hope for good weather tomorrow. Still, I'm not taking my umbrella out of my purse. I left it at the apartment over the weekend, so I walked home from the subway at 11:00 last night in a rioting thunderstorm. Note to self: Put taxi numbers on your cell phone.

As for the dreams, I have two to share. If you enjoy dreams and ponderings on the unconscious, you should also check out my friend Brent's blog: Nine Long Nights. I scribbled both of my dreams in my journal shortly after waking up.

Dream 1: There is a hurricane, or perhaps an earthquake. Across the street, the fronts of buildings move like the surface of water, like a wave. I hear no wind, feel no shifting ground. Now a wrecking ball begins demolishing the buildings on my side of the street. It crashes through the side wall of a building just across an alley from me. In the back of the building, people eating in a Chinese restaurant carry on, unconcerned.

At the front of the building, a man steps up to have his picture taken with the destruction. The ball slices through the building, leaves chaos behind. The man is in the path of the next swing. He sidles out of view of the crane operator, smiling at me. I shut my eyes. The ball swings. I keep my eyes closed. Collision.

In the darkness behind my eyelids, I overhear horrified voices discussing the body in pieces, the impossibility of saving a life so shattered. In my mind's eye, I see the scattered body parts, the brains and blood on the ball and chain. I turn away with my eyes still shut and move toward the back of the building to warn the happy restaurant-goers not to leave by the front. I am thinking, I have seen two people die today. (How two? The logic of dreams.) I could have prevented this death, but I said nothing and shut my eyes.

My friend Sue is in the restaurant, which is enormous, like a beer garden, and crowded with people from some kind of mission trip, all in matching t-shirts. I begin warning them, and then the dream dissolves into wakefulness.

Dream 2: I am standing in crystal-clear Australian ocean water with my friend Saedra, carrying a heavy purse. We are surrounded by the white hot clarity of noon. Bubbles skid and swirl around our feet. On the beach nearby, others splash and play. I want to go swimming, but I'm carrying too much stuff. "Wait here," I tell Saedra. "I'll go lock up my purse at the place where I'm house-sitting, and then I'll only have to carry a couple of keys."

Back at the house—a ramshackle warren of interconnecting rooms—I discover a dozen doors, each with its own keys, some with multiple locks. There are keys of all types: door keys, car keys, tiny and huge keys. I mean to lock up and leave, but I keep getting distracted. For one thing, the neighbors seem to have their own sets of keys, and they keep invading the house. They appear out of nowhere, setting up a party in the living room, taking a shower in one of the bathrooms. As I pass through that bathroom on my way to lock one of the doors, the woman showering grabs me through the curtain, enveloping me in plastic. I shriek, but even in the dream some part of my brain analyzes the moment, realizes it's a reversal of Psycho.

I never escape the house and return to the beautiful, hot, sunny beach and the cool crystal water. At the end of the dream, I'm watching TV with the invading neighbors. It's a show where we can call in and rate old music videos. Somehow, a subliminal message of "Vote no, it's awful" has been laid down to the beat of the current song. On screen, Elton John (flabby, tattooed, in a midriff-baring top) and Bono (in silly amber-colored glasses) squat and sing together.

So, dear readers, what do we make of this? I theorize that both dreams refer to my anxiety about living in a crummy Queens apartment two states away from my husband and our home in Philadelphia. The proliferation of keys in the second dream probably reflects on the fact that I have three keys to the apartment, but cannot even latch my bedroom door. I'm both secure and exposed. Lately I've been ogling the other apartment buildings on the way home, thinking, "Look at those fire escapes! I bet THEY have smoke detectors." And in a fair world, I wouldn't be paying the same amount of rent as the other two roommates, who both have rooms twice the size of mine. But perhaps at this point I'm veering from dream interpretation into straightforward whining.

New York does make me nervous, though: the kind of nervous that makes you want to shut your eyes in front of the wrecking ball. Sensory overload: the subway roars and sways, the cars honk, the elevated train rattles its cage. Gum and dog shit on the sidewalk. People speaking in tongues, refusing eye contact. I feel my smile going underground.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Snotty and Thankful

So, I'm sitting at home in Philadelphia with a cold. If I had been in New York today, I would have sat in on a meeting with a vendor of archival materials and possibly helped install some priceless treasures in the Three Faiths exhibit set to open October 22 at the Steven A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. I got to help some last week, and the books were awe-inspiring: Coptic and medieval Christian scrolls, thoroughly painted and illuminated; beautifully decorated Islamic books with flap closures and polished purple paper; Jewish manuscripts and sacred commentary. Books covered in velvet, books covered in gilt silver with painted enamel bosses and semi-precious stones. Parchment, paper, leather, hand-colored maps, woodcut prints of the saved and the damned. If you'll be in New York, go see this exhibition. The books are exquisite.

But I'm not there today, helping out. No, I'm alternately lying down, blowing my nose, sneezing, watching recorded Mystery! shows, eating grilled cheese and soup, and sleeping. Thankful that I don't always feel this bad. Thankful that normally I can run up the stairs rather than dragging my slow way one step at a time. Thankful that I've got a Mom three states away who would make me tea if she were here instead of there. And a Dad who would light a fire in my fireplace if I had one. And a husband who taught me how to make grilled cheese without burning the bread. And a neurotic black cat who sleeps between my knees and keeps me warm.

My parents have both retired now. That's them at the top of this post: Dad's in the huge bag his department gave him at the party this spring, and Mom's ready to haul him off on their new adventures. It's a bittersweet thing, having your parents retire. On the phone, Mom tells me she's selling off or giving away the smoked-glass stemware they never use, since it's both too fancy and too out-of-date for their lifestyle. Ditto the silver. Do I want it? But I don't use the scraps of silver I got, either. We're all too busy to spend hours cleaning off the tarnish.

Of course, the subtext for all this retirement house-cleaning is that Mom doesn't want me and my brother to have to do it, someday—let it be far, far off!—when she and Dad are gone. I know that day will come. I cry about it, sometimes, in advance, like a pressure-cooker letting off steam. As I get older myself, I know more and more people in the sandwich generation, taking care of both their kids and their parents. And it feels strange to know that I'll never be a sandwich. I'm the end of the line. No kids. Nobody to give my crystal and silver to when I retire. Nobody to mother when my own mother is gone.

Recently, I told a new friend—older, with a young son—that my husband and I probably wouldn't have kids. Some other people close to my age voiced the same opinion. We didn't like kids, particularly, or we were ambivalent; we had other things we wanted to do with our lives. Selfish! she exclaimed. And I'm sure that—in the right circumstances—she's right: having a child turns into the most selfless love of your life. Yet we all see around us the consequences of selfish child-rearing: neglected, abandoned, abused, or just plain spoiled children. Give them whatever they want, just so they stop bothering us.

I think having children must be like responding to a fire: You never know what you'll do—what you're capable of—until it happens. Will you run into the burning building? It could be the love of your life, a selfless, unconditional act of giving. It could be the opposite. Lingering resentment and hardness of heart. I don't know what would happen to me if, in the short fertile time I have left, I had a child. I've always liked babies more than children. And perhaps by the time the baby began to turn into a greedy, manipulative little human, he or she would have claimed my heart already. I'd be able to put up with the tantrums, the messes, the playdates, the tears. The snotty noses. All I know is that my parents did it for me. They're still doing it. And I'm thankful.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Where did September go? And how about the rest of August? In my case, they went to finishing up my internship at the National Portrait Gallery, completing leftover treatment and research projects at Winterthur, visiting family and friends in North Carolina, and starting my next internship at New York Public Library. This one goes from mid-September through the end of May.

The day I took the above picture was memorably bad: I rented a cargo van, bashed it into a car on my street in Manayunk while trying to parallel park it, wrestled with my conscience, left a note, loaded the car, drove it to Queens, parked in somebody's private driveway without realizing it, got yelled at, prayed, managed to parallel park successfully, said thank you, unloaded in the gasping heat, drank a half-gallon of cold water, and assembled my tiny bedroom, which is the size of a walk-in closet: 7 x 11 feet. The door to the rest of the apartment has a knob, but the doorjamb has no hole in it and no catchplate to accept the tongue of the knob. So it doesn't latch. Ah, New York.

Since taking this picture, I have opened up the futon (which almost makes a queen-sized bed) and lost the little floor space remaining. But it does make sleeping more comfortable.

I have also read Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit (fabulous) and Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed, which joins a string of good novels named after lines of hymns. However, I think Hour is not quite as coherent as I Know This Much Is True. (In general, Lamb likes to bite off a bit more than is comfortably chewed. And in this book, he certainly embraces discomfort: Columbine, Iraq, PTSD, adultery, vehicular manslaughter.)

And I've thought a lot about writing. I've seen Jonathan Lethem speak. I've gotten my friend Amy Rogers' excellent advice on using artificial deadlines to make yourself productive and overcome your fear of the sh!tty rough draft. I've written in journals and notebooks. Just not on this blog. I hope to remedy that as time goes on, even if nobody's reading!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

And Italy Makes Five ... Pounds

A light snack: ham and cheese calzone in Orvieto

And I don't mean pounds sterling. I mean five pasta-guzzling, wine-swilling, giant-cream-filled-breakfast-croissant-munching pounds added to my none-too-petite frame in one week. OK, OK, maybe all the beer and delicious meals in England during the previous two weeks also had something to do with it. But I'd like to blame Italy. Thank God the wine and food festival took place the week after I left.

I arrived in Rome on July 24, after a farcical struggle to reach my hotel near Heathrow by closing time (unsuccessful, but they graciously let me in anyway). I had left Oxford late, let three Tube trains pass before realizing that I had to catch the "wrong" one and change trains farther down the line, gotten off at the wrong bus stop (Cranford Lane instead of Cranford Lane/Redwood Estates), and hustled for 30 minutes along dark London streets to reach my bed. By then I was so tense I couldn't sleep anyway. And the saga continued once I reached Italy, where I had the added disadvantage of being illiterate. I missed my train connection through a misunderstanding with the ticket agent and had to wait for two hours on a remote platform for the next train to arrive. Halfway through that time, the electronic sign on the platform died, so I could no longer tell which train was due. Fortunately, you don't have to be terribly literate to read a train schedule, and through a combination of sign language and trusting to dumb luck, I managed to reach Viterbo Porto Fiorentino by 7 p.m. My teacher for the medieval pigments course, Cheryl Porter, generously picked me up from the train station in her car and chauffeured me to my residence for the next week: a historic house within the original city walls of the fortified hill town of Montefiascone.

And I do mean "within the original city walls." My bedroom, which I shared with two other students, was a long, vaulted space that was once part of the cellars, and its window opened in the city wall to look out over the fertile plains of Lazio. (I saw my first olive and kiwi trees on a drive to the Lago di Bolsena the next day.) A short walk down the hill brought us to the town square and its fountain, which is filled with wine during the festival I missed. A short walk up the hill took us past the cathedral to the disused seminary where we studied medieval pigments and toured the historic library.

Thunderstorm over Lake Bolsena

Every morning during the week, my fellow students and I met in the town square, usually over coffee and pastries. We then walked up the winding cobblestone streets to the seminary, where Cheryl taught us about the pigments used to produce medieval manuscripts. In the morning, we learned about their history, production, and use--with slides of examples from Cheryl's long career as a manuscript conservator. In the afternoon, we mixed the pigments with gum arabic or glair, ground them further if necessary, and painted them out onto sample sheets. We also experimented with laked (organic) colors, gold and silver leaf, and historic inks.

One afternoon, Cheryl and Claudia, my Italian classmate, drove us all to Bagnoregio and its dying sister city, Civita, which is slumping and eroding from its high spur of land into the deep valley surrounding it. It can only be reached by walking or riding across a long causeway connecting the two cities: something I desperately want to do if I return to Italy!

We also visited Orvieto, with its beautiful banded cathedral and the 53-meter deep Well of St. Patrick, which dates to 1537. Someday I hope to return and see more of its fortress and its caves!

Il Duomo di Orvieto
Looking down St. Patrick's Well
And, of course, we feasted. At lunch, I made myself salads of arugula, fresh tomatoes, cold cuts, and shaved parmigiano reggiano, accompanied by pesto and fresh rolls from the bakery with the killer croissants. Sometimes my classmates forced me to indulge in gelato, too. And at night, we ate bruschetta, suppli, pizza, pasta, veal saltimbocca, insalata mista, and, of course, a little something sweet. Panna cotta. Tartufo. Tiramisu. By the end of the trip, I couldn't fit into any of the clothes in the cute shops lining Montefiascone's main street. But I don't think they were designed for Americans of Viking descent anyway.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bad Bean Takes Corolla ... and England

Derek made me do it.
So, you haven't heard from me for a while. My apologies. I even started drafting an "I'm about to go on vacation" blog post, but in true procrastinator style, I never finished it. So, here I sit at 9:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, feeling like it's 3:00 in the afternoon, and eking out bits of my travels for you.

In my original plans for this summer, I was to spend two weeks in England followed by a week in Italy at the Montefiascone Conservation Project, taking a class on medieval pigments. The first week in England was to have been in Cambridge, taking a hands-on Islamic binding workshop with John Mumford, since the one in Montefiascone was full. The second week was to have been spent visiting friends in Oxford and London before flying to Italy. We all know what happens to plans, however. When the Islamic binding workshop in Cambridge was suddenly canceled, I delayed my British Airways flight (ka-ching!) and spent four days on this side of the pond in a blissful road trip to Corolla with my husband, Derek.

We stopped in Assateague to see the wild horses, in Kill Devil Hills to see the Wright Brothers' Memorial, and in Corolla itself to climb the Currituck Light. In between, we swam and bodysurfed and lounged on the beach, sampled the local brews, and slept more than I would have believed possible. Jersey shore, eat your heart out. The Outer Banks are where it's at. The sand is fine and white, the water is bathtub warm, and the people are few and far between. By the time we got home, I had two new stamps in my National Parks passport, the beginnings of what passes for a tan on someone as white and pasty as myself, and t-shirts from Bad Bean Taqueria and Dogfish Head Brewing. Woo-hoo!

After our road trip home, Derek and I repacked for a shared week-long trip to London. Highlights included dinner in St. James's Park, a beer-appreciation class at Meantime Brewing's Old Brewery, the hours-long beer tasting with Carrie and friends that followed, a whirl in the London Eye, a river trip along the Thames, and A Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Picking our way up Brick Lane on a Sunday evening was also an adventure, with frenzied runners from all the Indian restaurants trying to seduce us with promises of free drinks and the best curry in town.

Derek and I in the London Eye. I cut off the top of Big Ben, but those are the Houses of Parliament in the background.

We also took a bus ride to Oxford for a short stay with friends in Beckley. Cathy and Pierre were kind enough to drive us into the Cotswalds for a tour of the Hook Norton Brewery and a visit to the Rollright Stones, a Neolithic stone circle. With Lyn, they also treated us to an Indian feast of epic proportions. We were all shockingly full after the appetizer, but the food just kept coming. Delicious and amazing. The next day we helped in the garden and made fresh black currant jam. For a city girl, the delights of a country garden are spectacular: fresh potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, asparagus, broad and runner beans, and zucchini, although of course the Brits call it courgette.

After Derek returned to the States, I enjoyed more country rambles, a thorough soaking in an English thunderstorm, and a walk through the New College gardens at Oxford. I also visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, complete with an outdoor "ghost forest" exhibition of tree trunks from African rain forests, and the Pitt-Rivers Museum, England's equivalent of the jam-packed and eccentric Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA. Unfortunately, conflicting schedules made a tour of the Bodleian Library conservation labs--something I've lusted after for years--impossible. Alas. At least it gives me a reason to return!

In my next installment: Italy! Caffe latte! Medieval manuscripts!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Library Lust

Last week I walked across the Mall to an appointment at the Library of Congress, the sun beating down on my head as I maneuvered between pools of shade on the dusty paths. The grass was already turning brown and brittle in the heat; the leaves on the young trees were yellow. Capitol Hill was a gentle incline compared to the steep hills at home in Manayunk. The gardens were dark green and raspy with the first cicadas. (You say ci-cay-da, I say ci-cah-da ...)

Yasmeen Kahn, book conservator at the Library of Congress (known in Washington’s acronym-heavy jargon as “LC”), met me outside the fluttering bronze books on the front of the Madison Building. We ate at a diner across the street, and then she gave me a tour of both the Jefferson Building and the rare book conservation lab. Yasmeen is petite, generous, soft-spoken, knowledgeable, and hilarious—the perfect host for a wide-eyed book conservation neophyte like myself.

The Jefferson Building, where the reading rooms are located, is a cathedral of books, any of which may be requested by a member of the reading public. It’s the type of lavishly decorated, soaring space most of us encounter only on movie screens, and to know that it’s our own public library, and not the private haunt of a wealthy billionaire, is pretty awe-inspiring. Yasmeen led me down a beautiful side corridor with mosaic floors, vaulted ceilings, gilt moldings, and beautiful vignettes everywhere. The Member’s Room opened off the corridor to the right: an equally ornate space with gorgeous thick carpet and twin fireplaces, where Congress members can relax with a good read. (Sadly, they never do.) Long, shuttered and curtained windows opened onto the Capitol grounds. At the end of the corridor, we peered into the opulent Asian Reading Room, with its two-story tiers of shelves (apparently mirrored on the opposite side of the building by the African Reading Room).

We then returned to the extravagant marble-columned entrance hall and descended a level to the researchers’ area under and around the main reading room, which occupies a dome at the center of the building. The core or hub of this subfloor contains a conveyor-belt system by which books are supplied from the stacks to the reading room above. Several more reading rooms radiate from the corridor around it, including a children’s room, a young readers’ room, and the Hispanic Reading Room, which Yasmeen showed me.

Back up one level, and we entered the main reading room itself, a two-story space encircled with bookshelves and glass walls, behind which lie more reading rooms and carrels lined with shelves. Some are very ornate, and at least one is a recreation of a donor’s private library. Velvet curtains and rich textures vie with gold and marble and walnut. The conveyor belt brings books up to the elaborate wooden desk in the center of the room, and librarians hand them out to visiting researchers.

Yasmeen then led me through an underground corridor to the Madison Building, and we entered another world. No more decadent spaces: the working areas of LC are a maze of white corridors, more like a hospital than anything else. The book conservation lab is an orderly grouping of workbenches separated by book presses and other tools, all ranged around a wide central table. I saw stitched Chinese books from Taiwan, foxed pamphlets of Haitian law, Armenian manuscripts with problematic paints and varnishes, plastic-wrapped scrolls used by Indian street storytellers, and sacred palm-leaf books with delicate incised illustrations. The array of library materials was amazing, and the conservation problems were fascinating. I left feeling certain that I had chosen the right field, and nervous about all the things I still have to learn.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reading for Pleasure

I am a voracious reader. For fun, I read novels. Lots and lots of novels. I managed to read quite a lot last summer, when I was studying bookbinding with Don Rash (who is highly recommended). And in the second year of my graduate program, I still managed to churn through a pretty large number of books, even if it was only at night, to escape from stress and make my brain turn off so I could sleep. I was aided and abetted first by downloading the Kindle app for my iPhone, then by my husband's generous end-of-school gift of a full-size Kindle, which has been keeping me company every day on the Metro. Although I don't agree that it somehow magically becomes a book in your hands—the clicking page-forward buttons are somewhat offputting—it does keep me occupied. Even when the air conditioning has failed, as it did yesterday. Ugh.

Lately I've been reading Haven Kimmel's books, and although I'm somewhat ambivalent about them, I can't seem to stop reading. Her latest novel, Iodine, reads like a fever dream, and I loved The Used World. To hear Kimmel tell it, Indiana is full of wasted small towns populated by dysfunctional families and meth freaks, with assorted pointy-headed, emotionally scarred intellectuals thrown in for good measure. The striking contrast between these characters can make for compelling reading, especially when the educated folks manage to maintain empathy for the lost souls struggling around them. However, I lose my patience with some of the religious-studies jargon. In The Solace of Leaving Early, Kimmel writes about Alfred North Whitehead's theology as perceived by preacher Amos Townsend:

"In God's Primordial Nature there exist all the pure possibilities for every moment (every actual occasion, Whitehead would say) of concrescence; in the Consequent Nature is the world as we choose to make it: every actual occasion and every actual entity, every single moment, rendered objectively immortal. Amos still felt a chill when he considered the reach of this idea, and how he felt when he first heard it discussed in seminary."

Unfortunately, I got to the end of that paragraph and said, "Huh?" This is the reason I decided not to pursue a PhD in English Literature. The theory and the jargon were completely unpalatable to me. Eventually, after multiple readings, I think I see where Kimmel is going—and it's even a cool idea—but it's completely obscured by Important Sounding Language. I hate that crap. Plus, I have problems with conceptualizing the nature of God. Any God we can define becomes automatically too small, too limited, too tame. Why define Her mysterious ways? If they can be known at all, we'll know them when we're dead, and not before. All these discussions of free will and predestination seem pointless when you consider that the rules don't change: Love God, love your neighbor. The end. Isn't that hard enough? Do we really need a bunch of inscrutable terminology to complicate matters?

OK, OK. Stepping down off my soapbox. I guess my religious intellect has never progressed beyond the Chronicles of Narnia. Still, I keep reading, even when books annoy me. They're my favorite escape. To track the books I'm reading, visit my book list at Goodreads. I've got a backlog of titles to upload, but I'm working on it. Happy reading!

Saturday, June 19, 2010


I suppose it says something about me that I started this blog almost two years ago, on July 12, 2008, to be exact, and that I have done nothing with it since. Part of it is that my life was swallowed whole, chewed into something unappetizing and slimy, and spit by the roadside by graduate school. Part of it—I remember this clearly—is that I was paralyzed by the thought of beginning. What would I say? How would I describe myself? How could I be charming, witty, amusing? And who would care? Fortunately, after one's life has been fully masticated and digested, one no longer cares whether one is witty or charming. One is merely grateful to have survived. And here we are, dear readers, with a beginning.

Paul wrote, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Co. 13:11). As a child, my imagination was fueled by the writings of Frances Hodgson Burnett, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, and Mary Stewart. I lived almost entirely in my mind, whether I was playing with stuffed animals in my bedroom, soaking up the humid green air of Umstead State Park, wrestling with the surf along the Outer Banks, or writing short stories in the V-berth of my parents' sailboat, drenched with sweat beneath the wind scoop.

Creativity seemed to overflow in those days. In the summer of my eleventh year, while my parents conducted research in a ramshackle lab in the national park on Saint John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I began an illustrated novel about a puppy in a medical research facility, wrote plays for crayon-colored paper puppets stuffed with dog fur, and made up long, meandering stories about the royal figures on our deck of dog-eared cards. I also read without ceasing, including the age-inappropriate novels my grandmother had thoughtlessly provided for the trip: Clan of the Cave Bear, Valley of Horses, Sophie's Choice. My brother and I spent endless unsupervised hours swimming in Little Lamashur Bay, exploring the donkey trails through the scrub and fruiting cacti, and avoiding the poisonous manchaneel apples and the haunted jumbie tree. Eventually we also avoided Bill, the park caretaker who liked little girls. Ah yes, it was a summer full of novel fodder. And it led me to imagine myself as a writer.

I am working for the summer at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and this week I found a Norman Rockwell postcard of my imaginary self in the museum bookstore. In a dusty attic lit by a narrow window, a young woman in nineteenth-century clothing scribbles furiously on the pile of papers in her lap. More papers are stacked around her feet, which are propped on a picturesque wooden trunk. Two rats look on approvingly from the beam overhead. Yes, I was going to be a Writer in a Garret, a Rapunzel of words. I felt this so strongly that when an interest survey in high school said I would make a good book restorer, I reacted with indignation and kept on scribbling.

I found, however, that my perfectionism stands in the way of my novel-writing. I have written reams of material for the same novel over the past sixteen years, and I don't think I have ever progressed beyond halfway. The story morphs and changes as I age and learn and grow, but it never really progresses. I edit and re-edit what I have, try to work out the intricacies of plot, fall in and out of love with my characters. But unlike my more successful novelist friends, I am not driven to complete the thing. I don't sit down every evening to chip out another page or two. I just munch the first chapter over and over, like cud. I've never been able to embrace Anne Lamott's concept of the "sh*tty rough draft." Alas.

And so I find myself, at 37, embarking on a new career in which hand skills, logical thinking, and creative problem-solving outweigh the need for a million-dollar vocabulary. After three years of post-baccalaureate education in English Renaissance literature and creative writing, and seven years of working as a writer and editor, I went back to school for two years of prerequisite courses in general and organic chemistry, studio art, and art history. I then entered the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and studied book conservation. (Remember that high-school interest survey? Somewhere God is laughing.) Now I'm in my third year of that program, interning in paper conservation at the National Portrait Gallery, then in book conservation at the New York Public Library and the Walters Art Museum.

This week I reduced the ink staining on a print of James Monroe, our fifth president, using deionized water and a suction disk. Afterwards, I gave Mr. Monroe a bath. He suffered from foxing, brown discoloration, and tidelines. (Readers, take note: use UV filtered glass to protect your valuable prints and drawings. And for goodness' sake don't store them in attics or basements or squeeze them into frames that are too small.) In addition to cleaning Mr. Monroe, I removed some vile pressure-sensitive tape hinges from two other prints. I also learned to made and attach standard Japanese paper hinges for mounting and to cut window mats. But here's the really cool part about interning at the Smithsonian: I got to inspect Thomas Jefferson's Jesus scrapbook (his clippings from Greek, Latin, French, and English Bibles describing the moral life of Christ, sans miracles, all pasted into a stubbed blank book); a heartrending slave manifesto from a ship departing Alexandria, with slaves as young as 7 months; and the original Oscar the Grouch puppet, whose polyurethane foam stuffing is disintegrating.

Where will I go from here? Have I given up childish ways? In many ways, I hope not. As I told a friend recently, I'm still looking for the secret doors and windows of the world, the gates that open onto beauty and eternity. I love it when the veils fall away, the mists clear, and I'm confronted with the ineffable. Joy can stun me to tears. Today: sun on the wildflowers in my garden, the taste of my husband's home-brewed summer ale on my tongue, these words.