3 Decades and counting’ Fine Art Project: Literature

 In Memento Vivere
For some reason the occasion of my 30th birthday has me doing a major self-evaluation. I’ve come up with this plan for a series of self portraits that capture things that I’m passionate about as a way to express my thoughts, and also to give me an excuse to do some really fun things with photography!
This first piece was inspired by my love of books.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been a bibliophile. My mom read to us when I was young, and we went to the library all the time. (The first books I remember loving were a picture book called ‘Color Dance’ by Ann Jonas, and Piggies by Don and Audrey Wood) When we lived in California mom had one of her innumerable epic creative ideas and made a giant ‘Very hungry caterpillar’ that lived on our wall up near the ceiling. The head was created out of card stock paper, and then every time we read a book we wrote down the name on a circle and added it at the end of the caterpillar. By the end of the year there were colored circles all around the permitter of the bedroom. A giant rainbow caterpillar made up of books we’d read! What I now recognize as my competitive nature LOVED seeing this visual record of all the books I’d read.
Now that I’m an adult I take just as much (or more) pleasure in having a great book collection. Luckily my first ‘real’ job was as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble when I was 16. At the time I was a little upset at all the money I was spending on books, I couldn’t help myself. But the truth was that I got an amazing discount, and I curated a really great collection that I’m incredibly happy with now that I own a home and have a place to put it. Books just make me happy. I love the look, the smell, the feel… everything about a hardcover book. Over the course of a normal month I read between 3-8 books. There’s just something about the written word that recharges and reinvigorates me every single time I invest the effort into a good book.
Back when I was at Barnes and Noble I had a major problem… I couldn’t STOP reading a book. If I started one, I felt somehow obligated to finish. This is a common issue with book lovers. There’s a sense of abandonment, like you haven’t give it enough of a chance if you don’t finish what you started. One of my favorite co-workers once told me that there are too many great books in this world to waste time reading a bad one, and finally that philosophy clicked, liberating me from the pain of finishing a book I wasn’t enjoying.
Another great gift at this time of my life was that my mother made me read ‘How to Read a Book’ in High School. This book outlines several different ways to read (for pleasure, for information, speed reading, etc.). Armed with these theories and the ability to practice them, I didn’t read books, I consumed them. Several times over my 20’s people have commented on my ability to read in any situation without interruption. In break rooms, on crowded trains in India, in rooms full of screaming children, and in loud gymnasiums. As long as the book is in any way engaging, I’m gone.
As I’ve aged my taste in literature hasn’t changed much. I was blessed to have been raised in a home where fantasy and fairy stories weren’t discouraged, and fantasy remains my favorite genre. A literature professor who was interviewed for a Lord of the Rings commentary said this of fantasy: “People tend to label fairy tales and fantasy fiction as escapism, but I don’t think that’s a fare estimation. It’s in theses stories that we are confronted with the truly terribly desires of the human heart, and that is, usually, a desire for power.” I wrote down the quote (but not his name, somehow) because I was so convicted of the truth of this. In great epic stories we see echoes of the great story we are living in, the great battle between good and evil in this world and the destruction that man’s desire for power has wrought.
I’ve written before of my issues with people who don’t let their children experience fiction. There are so many things that children, and even adults, can learn from fairy stories and tales of fictional triumph and tragedy. We learn empathy, fear, delayed gratification, commitment, teamwork, and gain valuable insight into the plights and triumphs of many different kinds of people.
Another great thing that comes from being a reader is the desire and ability to write. And not just to write, but to communicate effectively. I’m not a great storyteller by any means, but I believe it is my love and devotion to literature that has allowed me to excel as a communicator. I instinctively understand the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure. Everyone learns these things in school, but the reader is so much more apt to really grasp and understand (and then implement) these concepts.
It has been my experience that most people cannot write well. The extreme lack of ability to form coherent sentences is astounding in this country.
I read this year that any news published in written form for the American public is written at an 8th grade reading level or lower. This is an accepted standard for the publishing world. So basically we have come to the conclusion that the average American can only comprehend information written at an 8th grade level. Honestly I’d never noticed until I read this article (and I can’t recall where I read it) that it is absolutely true. If you read anything in print media it is written very simply, with very little creativity and little or no expanded vocabulary. This alone was a surprise to me once I started to notice it.
About 3 weeks ago my Grandmother Jerry (90) allowed me to bring home a tote full of newspapers she had collected over the years. Some of them were inherited from her mother, and date back to the early 1900’s. One paper in particular is announcing the start of the draft during World War I. This was written in 1917. ONE HUNDRED years ago. Aside from feeling an incredible sense of awe that I was holding a paper that was written a century before, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the writing. Yes, 100 years ago our news was written eloquently. They used beautiful language and elegant sentence structure that is nowhere to be found in today’s news.
Today I had a conversation with Amy about the implications of the decline of American literacy. Back in the early 1900’s everyone had to read. Radio was a luxury, television was unheard of. Almost nobody had a telephone in their home. If you wanted information, you either heard it from a neighbor or you read about it. Therefore the only way to consume information was by written word. Newspapers have never stopped being published, but somehow between the popularity of television, radio, the internet, and finally social media, our country as a whole has lost the beauty and complexity of the written word in large-scale publications. Of course I’m not an expert in this subject, but I’m sure that there are people who have put many hours into researching the steady road to simplified and condensed delivery of information. And this may in fact be a good thing, but I just feel like we’ve lost something irreplaceable as a result of this shift.
This whole concept would probably make an incredible work of fiction! In the current market with post-apocoliptic thrillers and sci-fi imaginings of the future, I would be willing to bet someone has already had this idea. What would happen if, in a few more decades or even another century, the written word ceases to be popular at all? Children no longer learn to read in school. All of our information is delivered digitally through holograms and other audible sources so that nobody other than serious literary scholars has a need to read or write. And then the tech all goes dark and humankind no longer has a way to gain information or communicate across any sort of divide? Throw some teenagers in a love triangle in the center of the story and we’ve got the next Hunger Games!
I digress.
Books are awesome. I know that there are people who can take them or leave them, and I still love those people. But I am a bibliophile, a library nerd, a bookstore addict.

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”-Albus Dumbledore

*P.S. – I realize that, having just delivered my ramblings about the decline of American literacy and the inability to write or read eloquently, I have not formatted my ramblings in any way that would be acceptable in an academic setting. And while I have to say that I like the freedom of the ‘blog’ format, I am a little bothered every time I write a note like this by my own lack of composition. It had to be said. My conscious is clear.
P.S.S. – The Making of an Art piece:
This photo took about 4 hours to complete. Our first step was to gather up as many of my favorite books as would fit in my frame. I chose to be reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman, a classic favorite, and I’m sitting on a philosophy book by Marcus Aurelius. We fit in a few Sanderson titles, gave Narnia and Ella Enchanted prime positions, and completed my stacks with Harry Potter and assorted classics. I took several photos on different settings, experimenting with depth of field and composition until we had something that I liked.
The portrait of me took WAY too long to capture. I agonized over what to wear. If you look closely I have Anne of Green Gables on my socks, and I’m holding a hand-painted Tea Cup with Aslan on it! Once I found a pose I thought was comfortable enough to be convincing as a reading pose, I shot several versions. And when I went back to check the set, I realized my pants were tucked into my socks, so we had to start over!
It took some time to process the layers separately to balance the color and lighting before I finally had a single layered file to work my post processing magic on. I rushed the process a little because I was SO excited to complete and share this piece, but I don’t think I’ll change a single thing about it. The final step was to add one of my favorite literary quotes by G.K. Chesteron:
“Fairy tales are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
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