Library of Congress: 'Voices from Afghanistan'; Folger: 'Extending the Book'
By Philip Kennicott
Thursday, March 11, 2010
It's no surprise that scrapbooking is enjoying a resurgence in the age of digital cameras, MP3 players and the e-Book. As the stuff of memory and culture becomes more ephemeral, small acts of rebellion proliferate. People cling to the tangible object, material matter that can be held in the hand, labored over and preserved.
The origins of the form predate contemporary resistance to the world of uploaded, socially networked, infinitely replicated memories, and its appeal is far deeper than mere resistance to the immateriality of modern communication. As two exhibitions now open at the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library demonstrate, people have been dressing up the word, decorating the text and inserting indelible reminders of their corporeal existence into documents for centuries.
At the Library of Congress's "Voices From Afghanistan" exhibit, we see this history in letters written by Afghans to Radio Azadi, the Afghan outpost of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They come from ordinary listeners for whom radio is often the only window on the larger world. They are filled with requests, for songs by beloved artists, for assistance with local problems, and sometimes, they are filled simply with gratitude and enthusiasm for Radio Azadi.
They are remarkably elaborate -- filled with drawings, decorations, floral motifs, stickers, anything that can gussy up a piece of paper -- for letters directed to something as remote and bureaucratic as a radio station, but they give a powerful sense of the immediacy of radio's role in Afghan daily life. They also borrow and elaborate on older traditional Afghan illuminated texts.
The appeal of the Library of Congress exhibition is its pairing of letters written yesterday with historic scrolls, "accordion" books that fold out into sumptuously decorated panels, as well as elaborate calligraphy and iconography from the library's Afghan holdings.
"We are seeing the continuity of tradition," says Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the library's African and Middle Eastern Division.
Separated only by a continent, several centuries and a vast cultural difference, the Folger's "Extending the Book" exhibition deals with a direct precursor to scrapbooking. Also known as the art of "extra-illustration," or grangerizing -- after the author James Granger whose 1769 "Biographical History of England" inspired a craze for personally illustrated texts -- it has been carried on at a high level, and to an often ludicrous extent, for centuries.
Not content with books that offered merely text, or text with minimal illustration, "grangerizers" undertook the expansion of printed books with often voluminous amounts of new material. If a king was mentioned in passing, even in a footnote, the ardent grangerizer would find an image of that king -- sometimes stripping other books to do so -- and carefully insert it into the text, which was often professionally re-bound.
The care and precision of the process was painstaking. Images would be carefully sized, then beveled along the edges so they would lie flat when inserted into new pages. The result was a new book, stocked with foreign and often very tangential images, but carefully stitched together and detectable mainly for the heterophony of the material.
Examples in the Folger's collection include a 1868 two-volume biography of the English actor David Garrick, which was expanded in 1903 (by a particularly diligent if not obsessive grangerizer) to 17 volumes through the addition of engravings, hand-colored prints, receipts and other documents. The result, which also included a 44-page travelogue of France which itself was extra-illustrated (grangerizing within grangerizing), was so overstuffed that the bindings have broken.
These weren't the isolated efforts of cranks or outsider artists working in Mom's musty basement. Grangerizing was a relatively common practice among book collectors and men of letters in the 19th century. It was somewhere between a hobby and a respectable intellectual pastime and it differed from modern scrapbooking in its ultimate devotion to someone else's text. It was also a subject of some controversy, not least because it frequently required pillaging one book to decorate another. The exhibition includes a 16th-century Venetian book about ancient medals that is full of ghostly round holes where someone has extracted illustrations for another volume.
If there is a common thread between the exhibitions, it is the relative scarcity of visual material in the two societies represented. Both shows invite one to imagine a world in which there is no inundation of visual data, in which even modest images have extraordinary power because of scarcity. One could read the name of a king and then search for years to find some dubious engraving that purported to show his likeness. But once found, what power it must have had.
Both worlds, the impoverished, scattered and war-torn landscape of Afghanistan and our own not-so-ancient chapter in Western culture in which the whole of history, literature and science might be reasonably encompassed in a few rooms stuffed with leather-bound volumes, feel naive to us. And charming. It's hard not to condescend to the hand-decorated scroll sent to Radio Azadi by two young men in Afghanistan, filled with hand-colored floral motifs, stuffed with poems and proverbs, measuring over 200 feet long. Where do they find the time? The horizons in life must be very small to undertake this kind of project.
Traces of humanity
Or maybe not. There's a passion to communicate in this scroll that can't be duplicated in e-mail and it bears human traces in a way text messages or tweets never can. There may also be a depth to it -- what's in it matters to these young men -- that has leached out of our rapid-fire electronic chatter. If you asked a young adult today to write an impassioned letter and put into it everything he thought worth sharing with the world, the request would seem absurd. In the time it took to find paper and colored pencils, the world would have continued to expand beyond the limits of even a 200-foot scroll. But how much of that new data would mean anything?
Virginia Woolf wrote an essay called "The Elizabethan Lumber Room" in which she suggested that English prose, at the time of Elizabeth I, was swelling with raw data, gathered from English adventures around the world. "Part of their charm," she wrote of a famous collection of travel accounts, is that they were "not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds." Prose, she argued, was swamped by these litanies of stuff, whereas poetry flourished because it forced form and discipline on the writer: "Rhyme and metre helped the poets to keep the tumult of their perceptions in order."
Doing something by hand is another form of discipline, another way of keeping the tumult of the world in order. It limits what can be said, how much can be said and how long it takes to say it. The Folger exhibition, which makes mention of one woman who supposedly extra-illustrated a half-dozen verses of Genesis with 700 images, shows Elizabethan society manually connecting the data in the lumber room.
The images explode
But the world was about to explode, a visual big bang was coming, and soon even 700 images would be insufficient to connect every thread and idea and intimation in a few Bible verses. One of the most recent objects in the Folger exhibition is a scrapbook made in the 1920s, stuffed with cheap magazine prints. The lumberyard was no longer a small emporium, but a vast industrial complex.
But the world didn't expand everywhere at the same rate. The letters seen at the Library of Congress are fascinating for the simple, basic humanity of their requests, complaints and greetings. Congratulation on the holiday of Eid, and please play a song by Naghma. Or, as five girls wrote together from Parwan province, "We have a complaint to make regarding your programs, why, why, why, why do you always repeat the same songs?"
The computer is already lurking on the horizons. Radio Azadi also receives numerous e-mails, and letters decorated by Photoshop, not by hand. Even the same old songs are growing dull. Bring on something new.
But the older world still exists. It's ridiculous to romanticize it. The isolation is appalling. But as you emerge from the exhibition with your BlackBerry buzzing in your pocket, it's hard not to want to live in a world that might reasonably be limned by hand.