My bookshelves are a repository that’s both retrospective and forward-looking. They represent numerous journeys I’ve already taken and hope to repeat, as well as others as yet unfamiliar, which I plan to make at some undetermined point in the future. My bookshelves are emblematic of my optimism about the future, in that they imagine one in which I might have more time on my hands. But they are also inherently social, in that the objects they collect are intended to be shared, pored over, passed around, debated, and discussed in the presence of countless others.
Wright Morris wrote in his book Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (Aperture, 1989) that “to form a meaningful unit, one begins with a measurable multitude.” I take this to mean that no measurable thing can be understood as singular—that we are bound together by interdependence, relativities, and our shared histories. Morris’s claim seems especially relevant to photographs, words, and memories themselves: each are historically circumscribed instances in a long chain of prior events; each are simultaneously from the past, for the present, and integral to the future.
Robert Adams once wrote, “Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too—photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community.” Adams’s conviction and the sentiment he rightly defends underscore an optimism embodied by the humble bookshelf. In an issue of The PhotoBook Review such as this, dedicated to the intersections of the photobook and the archives, Adams reminds us of the multiple unpredictable and irreducibly social possibilities inherent in the photographic book.
In his essay “Eye and Mind,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that “we must take literally what vision teaches us: namely, that through it we touch the sun and the stars, that we are everywhere at once”—whether in the portrait studios of early-twentieth-century South Africa or in the trunk of a car in East Germany, on the silver screen or in some Springfield town in the United States. Merleau-Ponty continues: “Vision alone teaches us that beings that are different, ‘exterior,’ foreign to one another, are yet absolutely together, are ‘simultaneity.’”
I reach for such thoughts from the books on my shelves at moments when their insights seem most necessary: when a practiced cynicism represents the path of least resistance, in the face of the compounding complexities of everyday life. I imagine I will eventually donate my books to a family member, or to a friend, or perhaps to an institution where they might be of use to perfect strangers—at a point when they can better serve someone else. In this sense, my archive of books represents borrowed time, an interlude snatched from the inevitable succession of events. In this sense, the book is a reflection of ourselves: singular members of a vast multitude, small links in an immeasurable chain, moving falteringly together toward the future.
STANLEY WOLUKAU-WANAMBWA, is editor of www.thegreatleapsideways.com
Jane Mount published My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection of the favorite books of one hundred creative thinkers, with Little, Brown in 2012. idealbookshelf.com
Image: Jane Mount, Ideal Bookshelf #941, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa