Modern Nymphs

It’s an Olympic year. Let’s spare a moment for the Greeks, and their modern acolytes. Would you look at this book?

Modern Nymphs appeared in 1930, in an edition of 150 copies: a hard, brilliant Art Deco gem. It opens with Raymond Mortimer’s essay on the role of clothes in modern life. Mortimer is funny, but not flippant: he treats fashion seriously, not just at the level of couture, but at the level of the street: “Most clothes, like most pictures, are bad. The shop-windows of Oxford Street are as depressing a spectacle as the walls of the Royal Academy.” And yet a few women, mainly French, especially Chanel, manage to express something original and alive in the way they compose themselves: “our feeling for the stream-line seems an indestructible part of the civilisation in which we live. We insist on it in motor-cars, we are beginning to prefer it in architecture and we are unlikely to lose our taste for it in women.”

And what women: Thomas Lowinsky’s full-page illustrations give us the procession of the nymphs, hand-colored en pochoir, each with a classical title and theme. At first glance, they look much like their sleek commercial counterparts, the fashion plates of George Lepape and Paul Iribe. On closer inspection, though, these modern nymphs are far stranger. Aphrodite, in evening gown and cocktail rings, slinks past ruins and skyscrapers, while Prosperine scowls across a field of smokestacks. A smartly suited Danae, looking much like “the inspired, the imperial Chanel,” waits for the weather report on the wireless. (Showers, with a chance of Zeus.) Clyte turns from Apollo, and bravely exposes her torso to the sunlamp. The Harpies in their modish hats perch in an empty landscape out of De Chirico. Tiny airplanes and zeppelins dot the horizon. A speedboat zips past. The tableaux are composed, elegant, exact and surreal: as pointed and satiric an invocation of the classical sources as James Joyce’s in Ulysses. As Mortimer observes in his introduction: “We live on our ancestors, degenerate and devitalised . . . were it not that machines and clothes still develop new and auspicious forms.”

Certainly, everyone involved in the production of Modern Nymphs had high modernist sympathies. Mortimer was an art critic, later editor at The New Statesman; his friends included Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, and Louis Aragon. Lowinsky, a book artist of independent means and obsessive perfectionism, produced plates for a number of fine and private presses, including Nonesuch, Curwen, Shakespeare Head, and here Haslewood. Publisher Frederick Etchells, associated in turn with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists, would go on to become Le Corbusier’s English translator. All three had close ties to the Bloomsbury group, and it’s not hard to imagine a reader like Virginia Woolf delighting in the pensive Circe, cocktail shaker at hand, preparing for her party with the naval officers.

In his closing, Mortimer tells the future: “Towards the spring of 1933 it will become inconceivable that Jove could ever have had traffic with ladies as frumpish as the Nymphs in this book. And for twenty-five years or more you will look at these drawings only to be reminded how grotesque clothes once were. Then one of your cleverer children will pick the book up, and discover a quaint charm in these old fashions. Someone will give a party in which everyone has to appear in the clothes of 1930. . . . ‘Could anything be more delightfully George the Fifth!’ the young people will exclaim. ‘Look at Helen’s hats! And Daphne! I’m sure our clothes will never look so amusing and old-fashioned.’”

Your Bookish Future

Last week, I spent a couple of days in the subterranean steampunk corridors of MIT, attending the symposium Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book. The halls were crowded with publishers, librarians, critics, and conservators, and the rare book trade was represented too: John Waite in the back, and Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis to my right, energetically tweeting about simulacra. I took a few notes of my own.

Poet Christian Bök kicked off the event with a reading from his Xenotext project, in which he translates an original poem into a DNA sequence, then implants the sequence into the genome of a germ so that the protein generated in response forms a second poem. Given the ability of Bök’s pet bacterium, Deinococcus radiodurans, to withstand acid, dehydration, vacuum, and extremes of heat and cold, and to repair damage to its own DNA, this “extremophile” germ could, theoretically, serve as a stable literary archive capable of outlasting human life on earth.

In sum: D. radiodurans makes the paperback vs. Kindle debate look a little petty.

The loopy sci-fi quality of opening night didn’t last — as I suppose it couldn’t. Most of Friday’s presenters addressed the practical forecast for codex and screen, author and audience, over the next decade or so. The talk that really struck me came from digital media pioneer Bob Stein, now head of the Institute for the Future of the Book, who invited all of us to join the beta test of SocialBook, an ambitious post-print publishing platform.

Stein observes that the act of reading is evolving quickly from a solitary activity to a more collaborative one. In all aspects of its design, SocialBook foregrounds unfolding conversations between reader and writer, and among readers in a group, making every book, old and new, a virtual place where people communicate directly with one another.

We looked at a page of Cervantes in SocialBook. A group of readers – in this case, a high school Spanish class and their teacher – had marked up the text, the wide margins dense with conversational threads, represented visually in a way familiar to anyone who uses Facebook. The students still read Don Quixote as written, but an integral part of that process was responding to one another responding to Cervantes. Outside the classroom, SocialBook allows readers to join multiple communities, in real time and across decades. My unborn granddaughter, reading Middlemarch on SocialBook in the year 2055, could conceivably pull up comments I made before her birth, passages I highlighted, reading the novel along with me and adding her own observations for future generations.

Knowing myself, I can’t imagine giving up the solitude of being lost in a book, the luxurious reprieve from chat, but the social aspects of reading are close to my heart as well, and to the heart of Honey & Wax. When I first considered starting a rare book company, I thought of dealing solely in association copies: books presented by one writer to another, books from the libraries of interesting people, books signed and inscribed and annotated in ways that traced a history of human connection. I abandoned that plan as too narrow, but Honey & Wax remains dedicated to books as a form of social currency, a means of connecting writers to readers, and readers to one another. “Use books as bees use flowers,” the line that inspired our name, reflects an active and communal model of reading, generating something new and sweet and useful out of the perennial classics.

Honey. Wax.

Whether SocialBook takes off or not, some kind of networked reading experience seems inevitable, bringing people together around (or even inside) the text of the books that matter to them. I don’t believe, though, that books as artifacts will disappear. We’ll still own books in the future, we’ll just demand more from them than we have in the past. The ones we choose to keep on our shelves, the ones we share with the people we love, will have to justify their material presence, by being unique or beautiful or surprising in some way, and that’s good news for the rare book trade, because it makes every reader who buys a book into a collector.

That said, I can’t deny that in our collaborative networked future, I’d also love to handle the first edition of Bök’s Xenotext, the living poem mounted on a laboratory slide. If Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand nuclear winter, I’m sure it can survive my refrigerator.

Bookish cupcake, Unbound Symposium, MIT.

Spring!

I’ll be raising my blog game in the months to come, but on this green April morning, I just want to acknowledge that the kid was right: colored ribbon for the win.

 

Kings, Queens, Brooklyn

A couple of years ago, I picked up this pretty vintage copy of Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon’s Kings and Queens, a verse history of the English monarchy, first published in 1932. The book made a palpable, improbable hit with my first grader, who loved the sketchy kings:

“John, John, bad King John / Shamed the throne that he sat on.”

“Nobody dared / To say a word, / And Crookback Dick / Became Richard the Third.”

“Please remember James was not / An English monarch, but a Scot. / Also, James had goggle eyes, / And drank more liquor than was wise.”

The British Library just reissued Kings and Queens in a facsimile edition, with the original illustrations by Rosalind Thornycroft. I promptly ordered three copies. The kid’s response? “Fine, but you can’t sell OUR COPY.”

So here’s Kings and Queens, not for sale. At least not yet. Maybe never.

Roll The Credits

The first Honey & Wax blog post has to be a shout-out to those who brought you this website: Mika Babcock, presiding from above, and our crack Brooklyn team: Brigid Cabry Nelson on design, Lou Melledy on construction, Melea Seward on strategy, Matt Carr on photography, Cristina Payne on PhotoShop, Erik DuRon on dinner, and Lily O’Donnell on dessert.