The Salvation Army and the Lord send my parents “Farewell Orders”. We are being moved from 8 Francois Street, Durban to 20 Clarence Street, Joburg. In no time and with no chance to miss the open sky and the smell of the sea, I am a 10-year-old assigned to Mrs Van der Westhuizen’s class at Jeppe Prep. She is an unfinished Otto Dix painting.
Her face is unforgettable for its sharp angles: her nose ending in a triangle, just like her chin and her elbows. She is a tall witch with massive feet and dull brown hair that is plaited and then wound and wound from ear to ear until the ratty end is clipped to her scalp. One day she disappears: “sick leave”.
The classroom door frame fills with sensitive sunshine and purpose and kindness. His blow-dried hair enters first, then his pressed trousers belted much higher than most. Mr Williams, a worthy substitute in a satin bow tie (paisley).
Before long Mr Williams sends me home with a letter that makes me out to be Emily Dickinson meets William Shakespeare, and he lists 10 books I must read so as to develop my “rare gift” in reading and writing. In the weeks thereafter he often tracks me down on the marble field (rocky dusty scrap of soil next to the school) to enquire how the The 39 Steps is going. I fake it.
Acquaintance in English II tutorial at UCT is over-performing under the zen-like eyes of Dorothy Driver, who occasionally tilts her beautiful head like a grateful rescue puppy. I smell Driver’s thighs flex at every utterance from book girl saying “Horatian Satire” and “Authorial Intervention” five times too many. Their masturbatory dance of words irritates me.
Everyone knows I haven’t read the Jane Austen book in question. I don’t bother to fake it. I spend the rest of the week in the architecture building.
There are plenty of pretentious overperformers there too but they are diluted with drawing boards and pencils of seven different weights and Pantone markers and A0 sheets of paper and masking tape and giant books filled with drawings¹. And the building is named Centlivres. And its inhabitants are gorgeous. And they have regular slide shows in the basement.
Have you read …?
If only there were a time machine that could cannonball your younger self to your older self; your fake self to your true self; or a mirror that could reflect the precise pixels that form your self or selves unfiltered. Or a diving board that is a soft, safe fall into warm waters named “Centre of consciousness”.
If so, I would have sprung to the water’s surface as Elizabeth Bennet and screeched in my Durban meets Troyeville accent: NO, I HAVE NOT READ THE 39 STEPS. BUT DO YOU WANT TO SEE MY FAVOURITE COVER?²
It was published by Penguin in 1956 and the illustrator was Stephen Russ. A student at the Royal College of Art in the 1930s, his spectacular sense of design and pattern and colour presented some of the most alluring and memorable book covers of all time.
So, trigger warning for readers of these esteemed books pages: I am not a literary genius in the eyes of those who present their literary conquests from Karel Schoeman (again, a brilliant, BRIL-li-ant series of covers) to Jane Austen like visa stamps in their much-fingered passports en route to a writer’s retreat.
I am just a graphic designer and artist, humbling herself in front of you (“Sarcasm”); inviting you to stoop so low (“Dramatic Effect”) as to snoop at the literary (printed matter) treats housed in this designer’s studio.
Unless it is beyond your apprehension³, read on.
A limited viewing in no particular order
The Australians, hey? Second-worst accent in Australasia but they regain some dignity by bringing utterly glorious publications to this thirsty world. This book published by Frankie magazine is a treasure for its unique characters and character. The extra-large soft matt cover may as well have a sign on it that says “Marie Kondo Sucks”, but for sensitive viewers it is tamely entitled SPACES where creative people live, work and play. Every single one of the 256 pages transports you into the soul space of a creative. The paper is more matt than matt; the photographer is a jealous spy. To experience just five minutes of this book is to experience sheer sensory bliss. For me.
At the age of 18, my artist daughter published a series of four books about a character named Maude. “Maude was small. She was about as long as a sugar spoon, and she had always been that way.” I watched the creation of these works from the outside: the months of conceptualising, collage, paintings, sketches … as Maude came to life and was eventually beautifully preserved inside these four 24-page hard-cover embossed delicacies. Maude lives on her own shelf next to empty sketchbooks. She has no competition.
There is an angel in this world named Gabrielle (Gay-Bee) who has gifted me decades of listening. And books. Chosen only for me. Her handwritten messages on the opening endpapers are testament to her loving listening skills and that she knows the real me. And so this book has no written narrative except for a short foreword and one quote near the last page: “I am very influenced by places — by the atmosphere of a room, you know. And I just knew from the very moment that I came here that I would be able to work here”. It is a small book — easy to hold — in contrast to the explosive experience inside 7 Reece Mews: Francis Bacon’s Studio. Photographer Perry Ogden captures every millimetre of the space where Bacon lived and worked for 31 years. So private. Intimate. What a privilege to carry.
Helen Martins, Auguste Rodin and Frida Kahlo are alive and well in my world. Daily. I exhibit the books that hold their stories as paper icons to their spirit of no surrender. Naked Came I by David Weiss (1963) details the “sensational life story” of Rodin’s path from poverty to the founder of modern sculpture and all that was turbulent between. Helen and Frida’s stories are beautifully told by Susan Imrie Ross (1997) and Hayden Herrera (1989), enhanced by extraordinary images and personal letters. Sometimes I merely stare at these books or stroke them as I walk by. Outsiders. They are their art and their art is them.
My studio library ranges from the sublime to the silly; from vintage collectibles to four-page pamphlets; from sought-after CMYK manuals to How To make paper cutouts using scrap paper; from “important” brick-like books on graphic design since 1950 to 1000 pin-up girls; from the “CONFIDENTIAL” Cape Times Style Book (1950) to Cath Kidston’s Sew (2009); from a first edition South African Railways souvenir brochure of Pierneef paintings (1978) to the catalogue for Braam Kruger’s retrospective exhibition (2009) … it’s a collection of me by me for me. That’s all.
I have actually read some “important” books; usually long after they were a thing. Like the time I read The English Patient because my then-boyfriend said he had underlined a paragraph to explain to me why he was incapable of love. It still didn’t make sense. I once read a Norman Mailer book and I adored The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs (1966). I did read Pride and Prejudice (1813) decades after Dorothy Driver told me to and Of Mice and Men (1937) because I found a beautiful worn copy in a charity shop.
Don’t tell me what to read. Or why. Don’t even think about suggesting a book with a bad cover or an unsuitable typeface. I am far too visually sensitive to be toyed with. Please.
“Classic – a book which people praise and don’t read.” — Mark Twain
He’s not wrong.⁴
¹ Congeries is a fancy literary term for creating a list. The items in your list can be words, ideas or phrases, and displaying them this way helps prove or emphasise a point — or even create a sense of irony. Occasionally, it’s also called piling as the words are “piling up”.
² Erotesis is a close cousin of the rhetorical question. Rather than a question asked without expectation of an answer, this is when the question (and the asker) confidently expects a response that is either negative or affirmative.
³ A malapropism is when similar-sounding words replace their appropriate counterparts, typically to comic effect.
⁴ Litotes (pronounced lie-toe-teez) is the signature literary device of the double negative. Writers use litotes to express certain sentiments through their opposites, by saying that that opposite is not the case.
♦ VWB ♦
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