Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Ants

The golden age

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Butterflies and Moths

On Sunday, my wife and I held a birthday party for our daughter, who was turning four. It was supposed to be something small and affordable, but it inevitably spiraled out of control, with balloons, customized cupcakes, and a winged princess dress that combined Tinker Bell with Belle from Beauty and the Beast. (Beatrix dubbed it her Tinker Belle party, which made her old man proud.) Before long, we were forced to consider the problem of party favors. The guest list consisted mostly, but not entirely, of little girls—a couple of boys had been grandfathered in, if that’s the right word, from the precedent of prior birthdays. This presented a dilemma. I wanted to be consistent with the party’s theme, just because I’m insufferably obsessive, but I didn’t want to ask a boy to accept a bag full of fairy and princess trinkets. For all the obvious reasons, I also didn’t want to designate separate bags for boys and girls, so the favors had to be both fun and gender neutral. At last, I hit on the idea of a nature theme, since the party was being held at the Oak Park Conservatory. I cobbled together some goodie bags with toy cameras, stickers, fruit snacks, and a selection of vintage Golden Guides that I remembered from my childhood, which I bought at bargain prices online. Looking at the results, which were undeniably a bit twee, my wife said: “You really went full Wes Anderson on these, didn’t you?”

But I’d do it again. And it rekindled my love of Golden Guides, the line of paperbacks edited by Herbert S. Zim starting in the early fifties for Western Press. The first thing you need to know about a Golden Guide is that it has a pair of printed rulers on the edges of the last two pages, one calibrated in tenths of an inch, the other in centimeters. When I was younger, this feature impressed me mightily, and it immediately enhanced each book’s apparent usefulness. I often engaged in vaguely apocalyptic daydreams about what book I would keep if I were allowed just one one, and while a Golden Guide was never at the very top of the list, the fact that it was a book and a ruler at the same time was a definite point in its favor. The second thing you need to know about these guides is that they’re all the same size. To be specific, they’re four by six inches, which you can verify—as I’ve just done—by using the ruler in one Golden Guide to measure another. These dimensions were once fairly common for paperbacks, but they’ve fallen out of style, which is a shame. It’s a beautiful size, just large enough to fit comfortably in the palm of your hand or in a pocket, and it’s particularly pleasant to hold a stack of four or five Golden Guides at once. Each one is exactly one hundred and sixty pages long, a length that is somehow just right to contain all useful information about Botany and, oddly, its subsets like Flowers and Trees, too. It’s a lesson, if you like, on how all knowledge can be expanded or contracted to fit the space available.

Golden Guides

But the most important thing about the Golden Guides is that the illustrations are paintings, all gorgeous and finely detailed, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that they’re unforgettable. I’ve just glanced at the four titles that I have left over from the party, and I want to record the names of these artists: James Gordon Irving, Dorothea and Sy Barlowe, Nicholas Strekalovsky, George Sandström. Irving, who provided the pictures for eight guides, gets his own Wikipedia page, and I was delighted to discover that the Barlowes illustrated the classic Dinosaurs: A Pop-Up Book. Of Sandström, I’ve only been able to find a short obituary, which notes:

His son Cortright said that when he was growing up, his father’s studio was full of stuffed animals and strange objects—including a moon rock—which he was using as a model for an illustration.

I love the casualness of that aside. Including a moon rock! George Sandström once held a piece of the moon in his hands. As for Strekalovsky, I haven’t been able to find out much, but I’ll never forget his painting of the emperor scorpion in Spiders and Their Kin, which I immediately sought out as soon as I got my hands on my new copy. It was just as revolting and beautiful as I remembered.

And it’s because of their illustrations and design, I think, that these books continue to mean so much to me. When you leaf through an authoritative volume like Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants, which is like a Golden Guide expanded to its ultimate Proustian dimensions, you can see why nature illustrations are often preferable to photographs: they allow you to depict idealized scenes and specimens that might be impossible to capture on film, heightening reality so that you can more easily understand it. (As Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s illustrations for Sociobiology: “Her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can possibly be included in one scene.”) You get much the same feeling from these Golden Guides. A photograph of an emperor scorpion—which is a harmless species, by the way—is so insistently horrifying, for good or for bad, that it’s hard to get past your instinctive reaction. Strekalovsky’s painting is easier to study at length, and you can scrutinize its details until you realize that it looks rather nice. When you flip rapidly through any of these books, you get a soothing sense of a world that has been observed, recorded, and neatly labeled in a way that may have only been possible in the fifties. Its picture of reality may not be entirely true, but it’s reassuring for a child, and even for a grownup who feels overwhelmed by all the information that he hasn’t yet mastered. I may never be able to identify trees at a glance, but thanks to Trees, I’m confident that I could. Judging from the response of the kids at the birthday party, they seemed to feel it, too, or at least to respond to the pleasures that these guides afford. One of the two boys in attendance looked at the books and whispered: “Do I get one of these?” He did. But I was tempted to keep them all for myself.

One page at a time

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If there were world enough, and time, I’d read all the books that I buy, but as we’ve already demonstrated, that isn’t going to happen. At this point in my life, when I’ve been accumulating books for years, whenever I hesitate over buying another one, it isn’t so much about the money—although it sometimes is—as it is about time and space. I seem condemned, or blessed, to spend my life with overflowing bookshelves and books on the floor, and I’m fine with that (although my wife seems less than thrilled by the prospect). That said, when I decide not to buy a book these days, I’m often thinking about the cubic inches it will occupy, not its effect on my wallet. And same is true, even more so, of time. As has been pointed out more than once, if you’re thirty years old and can get through, say, two books a week, that’s just five thousand books until you die, not nearly enough time for everything worth reading. So whenever I’m weighing a new purchase, part of me has to ask of the book in my hand: “Are you one of the five thousand?”

Yet that’s manifestly unfair to most books, which aren’t necessarily meant to be read from cover to cover, but to be owned, consulted, browsed through, and contemplated. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has spoken approvingly of Umberto Eco’s idea of the anti-library, which states that unread books are far more valuable than the ones you’ve read—in which case my own library is priceless. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there,” Taleb writes, in his slightly smug style. And I agree. But the real problem isn’t reading the books: it’s about knowing, in general, what I’m missing. With the books I tend to buy, which are old, miscellaneous, and rarely searchable online, it isn’t enough just to glance at the back cover, or even the index. A quick look won’t tell you what you’ll find in, say, The Road to Xanadu or The White Goddess or any of the other great lucky bags of literature, in which a random page might contain a fact that can change a life. So what do you do?

If you’re me, you engage in a slightly more leisurely version of what Calvin does here: you sit down and flip through the entire book, not really reading, but at least physically looking at every page. I’m far from joking. This is browsing taken to its most literal, left-brained extreme, but it works so well that I try to do it with every book I buy these days, often at night, when my wife and I are reading together on the living room sofa. To take examples from the books I bought this month: it was while going page by page through Notes on a Cowardly Lion, slowing down to read the sections on Bert Lahr’s performances in The Wizard of Oz and Waiting for Godot—which deserve blog posts of their own—that I discovered the wonderful passage on the vaudevillian Billy K. Wells that appeared here on Sunday. And while doing the same for The Ants, I learned about the curious phenomenon of the ant mill, which I promptly appropriated for use in a section of my current novel.

And sometimes you’ll find something even more significant. If there’s any book that was made for a good left-brained browse, it’s Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, a big, glossy, gorgeous volume, too large to really read comfortably, dense with images and text, that I picked up for a song at last year’s Newberry Library Book Fair. While browsing through it page by page, alighting on a sentence here and there, I found Schama’s memorable account of the bizarre incident when, on June 15, 1985, a man attacked Rembrandt’s Danaë at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, throwing sulfuric acid at the painting and slashing it with a knife. I made a note of it and moved on. Even at the time, though, I sensed it would be useful, and in the end, a highly modified version of this incident ended up serving as the prologue of The Scythian. If it weren’t for that random discovery, the prologue—and the whole novel—would have been utterly different. It was serendipity, yes, but approached in the nerdiest, most methodical way imaginable. Which basically is what my life is all about.

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

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