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America loves Marie Kondo, a self-help author and lifestyle guru who has exploited people’s insecurities (and our culture’s dark codependent relationship with disposable consumer goods) in order to become enormously rich.  If you have somehow missed the fuss about Kondo, she wrote a book called “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”, which is typical cultish self-help waffle about how you should throw all of your things away, paint your walls white, and fold your few remaining textiles with chilling robotic precision.  Kondo has leveraged her success into a “brand” and now appears on Netflix, going through people’s lives and discarding everything that does not “spark joy.” In one recent episode, she caused great anxiety to intellectuals and bibliophiles when she applied her methodology to book collections. In her worldview, unread books should be discarded, as should books which you wish to read again, but are not presently reading. Kondo said that her ideal library was, at most, thirty books.  If there are parts of a book you love, you should cut out the relevant pages and throw away the rest (although it seems this may have been an experimental Kondo methodology which didn’t work out even for her).

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As you can imagine, these ridiculous & harmful ideas have caused book-lovers (and idea-lovers) to become apoplectic.  The history of people who destroy books or encourage their elimination is not very splendid or happy. It is hard not to elide Kondo’s claptrap with some of these sad episodes. Fortunately for Kondo, there are few intellectuals and booklovers in contemporary society, but there are legions of people who are angry in one way or another about identity politics. To the eyes of these Kondo apologists, the scholars and bibliophiles spluttering indignantly about the importance of books or whatever are racists who are lashing out at a successful Asian-American woman because of her wealth and influence.  As with everything in America in 2019, the entire episode has made everyone furious and left all parties looking bad.

In Kondo’s defense, I can sympathize with how difficult it is to create new material every day.  If you are forced to continuously churn stuff out, sometimes your material is not always terribly good. It is all too easy to say or do stupid things.  That is one of the reasons we throw things away. Indeed, I haven’t watched the offending episode, but have only read about it.  Maybe she was tossing out shelves of Dilbert cartoon books, Ayn Rand novels, or 1850s books about the glories of colonialism and slavery.  Since the show is about people appealing to her for help, she might have been throwing away hundreds of tendentious self-help books!

Also to her credit, Kondo identifies the information inside the book as the important part, and admonishes us not to idolatrously love unread books for their own sake or use them as props.

But, and this is the critical part: it is unclear how one would ever extract this knowledge if they discarded the book before reading it.  The things that “spark joy” in my life right now are different from the ones that will spark joy in my life a year from now.  When I was growing up, my parents had mysterious and compelling shelves of books from their college days.  Every day I walked past the diseased eye on the cover of Camus’ “The Plague” and wondered what was going on in that book.  Looking at the troubling dissection on “Gray’s Anatomy”, the dandy on “Vanity Fair”, the strange Van der Weyden portrait on “Masterpieces of the National Gallery” and the magnificent sperm whale on “Moby Dick” made me curious about the contents of those books too.  Sometimes I would pick them up and try to understand them.  Eventually I picked them up and read them.  If my parents had thrown those books away, maybe I would have found them later and read them on my own, or maybe not.  Maybe I never would have become as interested in reading to begin with.

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Also, books are our cultural heritage.  “Moby Dick” was universally unloved when it first came out in 1851.  It took 70 years before it found success.  What if 1890s Marie Kondo (I am sure there was an analogous busybody) had come along and thrown away the copy that caused a critic to love it and rescue it from obscurity.  Books are not knick-knacks or ill-used toiletries, they are bigger and have bigger meanings which are not immediately evident. Kondo seemingly fails to understand or acknowledge this.  Also I love books! Imagine if some third party went into Marie Kondo’s life and started throwing away the things she cares about most (dollars & followers) until she only had thirty of each left: I bet she would be pretty dissatisfied.

Beyond these obvious and cursory points about the nature of writing and thinking, Kondo’s insistence on shoveling this tripe into our face right now so she can become richer and more important speaks to the nature of now (when every business is busy making shortsighted decisions in order to maximize profits and our leaders are clinging to power even if it causes the republic to founder.).  Her unwise advice also increases our country’s dangerous love affair with anti-intellectualism, a perennial scourge, which, in the Trump era, is becoming a threat to the continued existence of the nation.

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I have been meaning to write about Kondo as part of a larger polemic against minimalism (an undying aesthetic movement from the 21st century which is not just ugly, but which is morally injuring us).  However, the fact that Marie Kondo is apparently openly attacking knowledge itself, temporarily derailed my anti-minimalist essay.  We need to defend literature and the accumulated knowledge of humankind against the ridiculous menace of the gentle Japanese art of throwing everything away (or whatever this crap is called).  Don’t worry though, I haven’t forgotten my original point and we will get to minimalism and oversimplification tomorrow some time next week. Events on the ground complicated my plans (because the world is complicated and not simple).

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Today I was riding home on the subway after a loooong day of Monday office work.  I was drawing in my little book when a friendly stranger asked me about the drawing I was working on (which was the surreal cartoon about modern dystopia which is pictured  above).  Uncharacteristically we started talking about dystopean fiction…and then the other people in the train joined in the conversation about favorite works of epic heroic fantasy, and Jungian archetypes, and science fiction as it relates to day-to-day society.  It was quite amazing and restored my faith in the world.  As ever, I was particularly impressed by Millennial-age people (by which I mean the cohort of younger American adults–not 1000-year-old-humans) who are much-maligned in turgid journals, but who strike me as polite, eager-to-learn, funny, and kind.  Anyway, the cartoon is about the unfortunate direction which society is going in at present (and it pokes fun at the inane yet somehow compelling Kevin Costner science-fiction movie),  however my unexpected book talk with strangers on a train makes me think the world might be headed in a much better direction!

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Today’s post is largely visual: here is a French Gothic Revival Bookstand made of ebony inlayed with wood, mother of pearl, and precious metals.  The beautiful carvings are ivory.  Carved in 1839 for the Duc D’Orleans, the piece evokes French renaissance furniture while exemplifying the apex of 19th century joinery and carving.

Nightjar (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Nightjar (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

It is 11:00 PM on Friday night after a long week and I have no blog post written.  You know what that means! It’s time to take out my little book and post some of the frivolous sketches which I do on the train or at lunch.  Since it is October and we are approaching the scary Halloween feature week, I have been doing some creepy otherworldly little drawings.  Above is a nighttime laboratory with two mad scientists hard at work doing some transgenic modifications to various organisms.  Ethereal spirit people drift by outside beneath the cold stars and various beasts and plants inhabit the spaces of the Gothic room not taken up by weird lab apparati.   The seated scientist bears a striking resemblance to a particular Abrahamic deity, but perhaps he is just playing god (not that there is anything wrong with that).  Only when I was done with the picture did I realize that the second scientist bears a striking resemblance to Rick from Rick and Morty (do you watch The Adventures of Rick and Morty? You should!).

Little Glowing Man in Pod (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Little Glowing Man in Pod (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

In the second drawing, a little glowing man in a hyperbaric pod lands on a strange world as a many limbed beast cavorts atop his craft.  The fronds of the creature’s vegetative back are a refuge for tiny green elf-like beings.  A pulpy red sphere with a green top in the foreground may be a tomato…or a larval version of the creature.  There is really nothing more to say about this image.

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So, over the holidays I gave some coloring books to my friends’ daughter.  It was gratifying to see how the coloring books, by grace of being the last presents of Christmas Day, stole her attention from the electronic doodads and the flying fairy which could actually fly (although, as a toymaker, I am still thinking about that particular toy).  In gift-giving, as in gymnastics, going last is a position of strength!  The little girl, who is four, graciously let me color one of the illustrations–a sacred elephant which was composed of magical spirit beings from Thai mythology–which I colored in fantastical fluorescent hues (while she colored her way through a collection of amazing animals from around the world).  As we were coloring, the adults at the party made various observations about coloring—about who colored inside the lines and what it indicated about their personality and so forth.

From Dover's "Thai Decorative Designs" Coloring Book amazing

From Dover’s “Thai Decorative Designs” Coloring Book amazing

I think my elephant turned out pretty well (although since, I failed to take a picture, you’ll just have to believe me).  Also I think my friend’s daughter was inspired to try some new techniques—like darkening the edges of objects.  It also seemed like she tried to pay more attention to the lines.

The experience took me back to my own childhood when I loved to color coloring books, especially with grandma or mom (both of whom had a real aptitude for precise coloring).  However I was also reminded of being deeply frustrated by the books on several levels as a child.  First of all, I was exasperated by my traitorous hands which would not color with the beautiful precision and depth that the adults could master.  I always saved the best picture in coloring books for later when I was grown up and could color it as beautifully as I wanted it to be colored.  As far as I know, these pictures all remain uncolored—somewhere out there is that 1978 Star Trek coloring book picture with all the crazy aliens, just waiting for me to come back with my Prismacolor pencils and nimble adult fingers and finally make it look good…

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Most importantly, I was frustrated that the most amazing pictures—the ones that were exactly as I wanted them to be–were not in the coloring books at all.  You have to make up the ones you really want and draw them yourself.

Aesthetics have gone wrong—it has been taken over by charlatans who cannot think up good pictures.  Instead today’s marquis artists are obsessed only with provocatively going outside the lines.  Like the kid in first grade who always did what he thought would be shocking, this quickly becomes tiresome.   Additionally, I think we all discovered that the “shock value” kid was easily manipulated.  So too are today’s famous artists who all end up serving Louis Vuitton (I’m looking at you, Takashi Murakami) or other slimy corporate masters who simply want free marketing.  Art and aesthetics should be more than ugly clickbait!  Our conception of beauty shapes are moral conception of society and the world. Therefore my New Year’s resolution is to be a better painter… and to explain myself better.  Next year I promise to write more movingly about beauty, meaning, and humankind’s place in the natural world (which I have finally realized is the theme of my artworks).    Avaricious marketers and art school hacks are not the only people who can take to the internet to explain themselves!

Takashi Murakami 7

Takashi Murakami 7

And of course there will be lots of amazing animals and magnificent trees and exquisite colors and crazy stories from history (and we will always keep one eye on outer space).  The list of categories over there to the left is becoming restrictive!  It’s time to bust out and write about all sorts of new things!  Happy New Year! 2015 is going to be great!  Enjoy your New Year’s celebrations and I’ll see you back here next year!

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Two weeks ago I was back at my Alma Mater, the University of Chicago.  As a special treat I got to go on a tour of the nearly finished Mansueto Library book depository, which is being built as an addition to the Regenstein library. The Mansueto depository is housed in a lovely oval dome made of glass, but the real heart of the library is five stories underground, where a huge steel rack holds thousands of uniformly sized metal boxes.  These boxes are indexed in a computer database.  When the depository is finished, these boxes will be filled with books and periodicals of the same size (to create maximum efficiency).  Once a reader requests a book, huge robot cranes mounted on metal rails (in the fashion of trains) will zip to the correct box and route it to an industrial elevator up to the surface world. The Mansueto depository will hold 3.5 million books.

A Cross Section Diagram of the Mansueto Book Repository

The Regenstein library, a huge brutalist limestone building on 57th street, already houses 4.4 million books.  A large part of the library’s charm is the easy- to-browse stacks: if you wish to look up 8th century Byzantine emperors you can find an entire shelf of books about them. Scholars and students appreciate the unexpected discoveries and ideas which spring from such an arrangement (although I spent far too much time in the Regenstein browsing increasingly off-topic books which called out to my fancy). The librarians in charge of the Mansueto project did not wish to sacrifice this aspect of the stacks, so the Mansueto will largely house periodicals and academic journals (which aren’t easy to browse without an index anyway).  Books about related subjects will continue to be grouped together in a fashion visible to library patrons.

The Mansueto Depository takes shape beside the Regenstein Library

My tour group was one of the last groups of people allowed down into the Mansueto depository. Once the staff starts moving books into it, the cranes will be active and the space will become dangerous.  Then only technicians and service professionals will be allowed down into the temperature and humidity controlled space. Before seeing the apparatus, I kind of imagined the library as being like a computer browser: one types in a title and the relevant information magically appears. But the tour revealed how naïve such thinking was.  The robot workings of the huge depository were amazing to behold and their scale was unnerving. Serious and remarkable engineering went in to the building of the complex–which reminded me less of a library and more of the modernized steel foundry which I visited many years ago.  Like that foundry, the underground compound had the unearthly feeling of a place humans aren’t really meant to be in.  The scale of everything was wrong. The shelves were inhumanly large whereas the walkways were too small to be comfortable.  The dry cold air smelled of steel and electronics.  Yellow warning signs were inscribed all around the huge motionless robot librarians and it was easy to imagine them springing to life and going on a crushing rampage.

A Robotic Crane in the Mansueto Depository

Here is a colleague beside the metal shelves to give you a sense of scale

When the Mansueto is full, the Regenstein will be the largest collection of books under the same roof in North America. It may be one of the last edifices of its kind. Digital information is supplanting traditional printed books and magazines everywhere, and I feel a bit as though I am describing the scroll repositories of the library of Alexandria (even if I’m actually describing a state-of-the-art triumph of robotics). I hope the digital revolution does not undo printing and libraries to the extent that has been forecast.  Standing in the beautiful dome and looking out at the gothic campus I felt like I was visiting a future built around books rather than a dreary future without them.

The Gothic Buildings of the University of Chicago Quads seen from the Mansueto reading room

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