Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Binding Love
What to do with all those books you can't let go of
 Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel January 30, 2015

Freestanding, easy to assemble, and highly transportable
, ladder shelves can be made from a ladder of any
 height that works for your space (preferably an old
 wooden one) and some wood planks.
In the movie “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) sets out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)—one of the country’s longest and toughest through-trails—with little outdoor experience and a backpack so heavy she develops nasty, raw welts on her hips and shoulders. A helpful guy she meets along the trail shows her how to lighten her load by paring down the items she’s carrying to the absolutely essentials. When they get to her books, he suggests carrying only the chapters she hasn’t yet read, and burning the rest. He demonstrates by tearing out a big hunk of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.”

Which just about killed me.

Destroying, defacing, even just drawing in the margins of a book—especially one you love—still strikes me as barbaric. (Don’t even get me started on the disrespect of dog-earring pages.) Yeah, I eventually learned to underline the heck out of a dry college textbook, but even then I did so with a light pencil mark and a ruler. Books are precious, sacred and deserve our respect.

But of course repurposing enthusiasts have other ideas. They excise pages from books and fold, cut, crumple and print on them. They carve the covers, contort the spines. They make jewelry, vases, wreaths, bouquets, collages, garlands, even pumpkins out of books. I suppose they gravitate towards book pages because the text will give their project a nice mottled-gray surface pattern, or imply a sense of literary sophistication, or convey a message, or just give new life to an object they might otherwise add to the landfill.

If you want to explore making household objects both decorative and utilitarian, artist/author Lisa Occhipinti’s 2011 book “The Repurposed Library” is a good place to start. In 33 projects she demonstrates how to deconstruct books to make lampshades, journals, mirrors, clocks, birdhouses and more.

But Occhipinti’s more recent book takes a somewhat different approach to books. “’Novel Living,’” she says, “is a hymnal to actual, physical books, their forms and their functions.” She talks lovingly about the physicality of books, as only an avid reader and collector would. She describes how reading a book stirs our senses: we are aware of its scent and tactile qualities as we cradle a book “as we would an infant child,” close to our heart. She compares the intimate interaction we have with bound books—“the tender, nearly silent turning of pages, like tucking a lock of hair behind the ear”—to the much less visceral swipe of a screen.

Her writing takes me back to my junior high days when, after school, I walked out of my way to the small branch library to check out “Lad: A Dog” and every other noble collie tale by Albert Payson Terhune, who was instantly my favorite author from my teacher Mrs. Faus’s classic reading list.

To create a lighted book box, basic wooden crates,
whether purchased new or sourced from a flea
 market, are outfitted with a little mood lighting
 and textile or wallpaper design, then hung on the wall.
 The little light inside illuminates the books like art.
It also reminds me of my parents’ childhood books I have stored in stacked cardboard boxes in the garage, like my dad’s “Peter Rabbit,” “Oz” and “Big Little Books,” or my mom’s copies of “Jane Eyre” and Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” Occhipinti inspires me to retrieve those beloved books from the cold, damp garage to preserve and conserve them, and perhaps even display them.

Our books, she says, represent our cultural and personal histories. She wants our haphazard book collections to become inviting, conveniently accessed libraries. “A library organizes books into a snapshot of who you are,” she says. “To live with them reminds us of who we are and where we came from.” When Occhipinti uses the word “library,” she’s not suggesting a dark-paneled room, with a fireplace, over-stuffed chair, and a ladder on wheels (although, that would be nice to have too). A library can be set-up in just about any room of the house, and arranged on various configurations of shelves, carts or cabinets. (One of her most clever and portable display ideas is an old wooden ladder with spans of plywood for shelves.)

The Gallery Table project—made from
 an IKEA Lack table—is based on museum
 furniture for exhibiting books and other
 ephemera like valuable antiquities.
A collection of books don’t become a library, the author says, until they are curated and organized. Bibliographic order—by subject, author and/or title—will help keep books easy to find. But aesthetic considerations such as color and size can be part of the equation too. “To alleviate the needle-in-a-haystack-ness that is part of the color or size-based system of arrangement, merge aesthetics with function by covering your books in color-coded paper and writing their titles on the spines,” she suggests.

Occhipinti also wants us to design with books by creating small tableaux she calls “bookscapes.” Books can be placed in idle places such as a non-operating fireplace (kind of an unsettling association, if you ask me), or stacked on a rarely used accent chair. A thematic seashore tableau can be created with nautical books and seashells on top of a dresser.

To me, though, decorating with books downplays their content and higher purpose. If a special book is to be displayed outside the library context, it should be in the spotlighted like a prima ballerina. Occhipinti’s two best project ideas exhibit books like works of art: her IKEA hack is a Gallery Table that mimics a museum display case, using an IKEA Lack table, four wooden spacers and tabletop glass; her Lighted Book Box, made from a wooden wine crate, vintage wallpaper and a wireless puck light, would be perfect for my dad’s “Peter Rabbit” series.

On an excursion to San Francisco last fall, we came across a small North Beach jewelry shop that must have had over 1,000 old books. The whole place had that musty-tangy perfume of aged paper, ink and adhesive. These hardcover rescues—some masked with construction paper—were arranged in myriad ways to hold and display necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Yes, they were using books in a “supporting” role, but, for me, the jewelry wasn’t really there—it was all about the books. I wanted to sit on the floor, open each one and see what was inside. I wanted to give each book a little moment of solemn recognition before we both headed off down the trail.