The funny thing about the digital apocalypse of American culture in the 21st century is that it’s only made books seem more precious.
Yes, it’s true that bookstores and libraries are struggling. And tablets and computers can instantly bring literary classics to your hands in vast library quantities. Bytes can, no doubt, bring you “Moby Dick” complete with Rockwell Kent illustrations with the flick of a button. And if, for some reason you wanted it, they could bring “Das Kapital” right afterward.
And it’s all made the book as physical object seem that much rarer and even more exotic. Which, in gift season, has made books, to some people, that much more luxurious. In a digital world that threatens paper scarcity, the kind of books that become available for gift season is more remarkable than ever.
When, for instance, you look at the staggeringly beautiful new Bien Chromolithographic Edition of the John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” (Norton, $350), you’re seeing something that has two separate but equal identities in American culture.
The first, and most obvious, is that it’s the work of the most famous American naturalist of them all, the man whose last name has become a label for conservation, ecology and all sorts of other things we’re busy choking to death (and, if we don’t succeed, smoke-belching Chinese industry will be happy to do it for us).
But it’s the paintings themselves that have a magical quality that are arresting. (Can we, in our everyday hunger for superlatives amid the humdrum, use the favorite current critical cliche “jaw-dropping”?) The truth is you don’t, in life, have to be someone who’d know an arctic tern from a flamingo – or an eagle from an egret – to find Audubon’s paintings of the “Birds of America” magnificent to behold. And “behold” is what you do with them. Just “looking” doesn’t really cover the experience.
The original “double elephant folio edition” of “Birds of America” produced by New York printer Julius Bien in the new “chromolithographic process” was, according to the publisher, the largest and most valuable book ever to be published in America.
All the original plates are reproduced here. The text of the book is by Audubon authority Joel Oppenheimer. It is a bulwark of the stunning luxuriance of the book in a 21st century digital age.
But then the grandeur of books in gift season needn’t occupy the higher aeries of culture where you find Audubon’s bird paintings. Certainly, there’s more than enough room for Bruce McCall and, yes, David Letterman’s “This Land Was Made for You and Me – But Mostly Me: Billionaires in the Wild” (Blue Rider Press, 105 pages, $25.95), a scathingly satiric tribute to the one-percenters among us who prove that “it takes more than money, privilege and cronies in high places to ransack nature’s bounty for the private pleasure of the privileged few, in what the poets might call acts of sublime idiocy … in other words, obliterating what always was, and making out of it what never existed before, then flanking it with armed guards and electric fences and Rottweilers.”
“It takes a vision indeed, that has swiftly metastasized into a contagion spreading through the Forbes 500 and across America and around the globe like an infestation of so many golden bedbugs nesting inside so many Faberge eggs.”
So, out of the authors’ fantasies of how obscene wealth might be used by those who possess it and no higher qualities whatsoever, we have, for instance, the “Trattoria Amazonia” which is “A five-star restaurant high atop the leafy Amazonian rain forest – or, let’s be accurate, tipsily balanced on the topmost layer of leaves in the leafy Amazonian rain forest” which “most qualify as at least the eighth wonder of the hospitality world.”
And too “The Royal and Ancient Galapagolf” which came about when the Galapagos Islands, “a natural haven for rare flora and fauna that is absent of predators and human intrusion, a delicate and Edenistic ecosystem duplicated nowhere else on earth,” were discovered by Moe and Madge Flux who instantly exclaimed in unison “the perfect spot for a miniature Golf Course.”
Wildly ingenious and very funny.
Almost as funny in a different – and unintentional – way is Chris Nashawaty’s “Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie” (Abrams, 272 pages, $35) a splendid and lavishly illustrated retrospective of the cinema of Roger Corman, the cheerful, unofficial one-man independent film-making school who guided the early cinematic lives of the likes of Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, and along the way gave us films respectable, semi-respectable, appalling and gloriously, transgressively exploitive.
There have been other Corman books, but this gorgeously illustrated oral history is the king of them all.
Mark A. Vieira’s collection of “George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamorous Portraits 1925-1992” (Running Press, 416 pages, $60) is by no means the first time that Hollywood archetypal glamour photographer Hurrell has been collected in a lavish book. But there is still a reasonably stupendous rarity about the feel of the reproductions from this book, which follows the entire career of the “creator of the Hollywood glamor portrait.”
It began in 1929 with a portrait of silent film star Ramon Novarro who, writes Vieira, “was so pleased that he showed it to Norma Shearer, the highest-grossing star at the most prestigious studio in the world” who promptly helped Hurrell become head photographer at MGM.
And thereafter produced photographs of Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Jane Russell (that’s his classic shot of Russell buxomly busting out of a hayloft) etc., which kept him going right up to the era of Paul McCartney, Queen and Sharon Stone. There’s no mistaking a Hurrell – where the skin texture was, likely as not, not too dissimilar from polished waxed fruit – from the work of anyone else.
The reproductions of this edition of Hurrell are extraordinary.
Somewhat less so – and, to be sure, less stylized for the best of reasons – are Lynn Goldsmith’s photos in “Rock and Roll Stories” (Abrams, 399 pages, $60), which were produced under rough and ready candid circumstances as well as studio posings for all manner of outlets. Her life as a friend and photographer of musicians of all sorts (and song collaborator with Sting, Stevie Winwood and Todd Rundgren) will soon be limned in a PBS special scheduled for this month.
Obviously, there are huge differences between, say, Carly Simon stretched out on a home diving board catching some rays (“I wanted to show her body but to present it in a way that made sense in the context of the scene” says Goldsmith) and Patti Smith, perched on a tour trunk in wrinkled khakis and baggy sweater but your faith in Goldsmith’s integrity in telling you “rock and roll stories” in photographs won’t waver. Even the more studied posing has its veracity.
There have, as well, been gorgeous previous books commemorating milestones in the history of Vanity Fair, but obviously Graydon Carter’s “Vanity Fair 100 Years: From the Jazz Age to Our Age” (Abrams, 456 pages, $65) is a one-of-a kind beauty. Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, edits this and contributes as a writer. Other essays are by Amy Fine Collins, David Friend, Sam Kashner, Nancy Schoenberger, Jim Windolf and, yes, Annie Leibovitz on the whole enterprise of creating Vanity Fair. (Richard Locke told Leibovitz “we want you to be our Steichen,” referring to the great American photographer who helped stake out the basic territory of the 20th century American photographic portrait in the early Vanity Fair. Think of truly iconic Garbo, dour in black with her hands holding her head on either side, pressed tight against her hair)
Here is a book for the season that is truly equal parts visual and textual pleasure. It was the province of Vanity Fair in its earliest days to provide pictures of James Joyce and John D. Rockefeller as well as a classic Steichen photo of Gloria Swanson behind a textured veil.
But here, too, are priceless quotes like these:
“Mr. Hemingway’s [‘The Sun Also Rises’] is certainly finely alcoholic and irregular, but it is not a balanced record of life in Paris.” – Ford Madox Ford.
“The Anglo-Saxon has lost, if he ever had it, the capacity for swallowing live marmosets, i.e. of swallowing a lively idea before computing its ultimate effect on his pocket.” – Ezra Pound.
“A king may be, and often is, somewhat stupid, but it is only by a kind of miracle that he is ever as stupid as a Harding, a Coolidge or a Hoover.” – H.L. Mencken.
“If I ever said that Diana Trilling was a ‘lazy old cow’ I hereby apologize unreservedly: I have no idea whether she is lazy or not.” – Germaine Greer.
It is rather mind-bogglingly sumptuous to look at. And those looking for them, will find plenty of live marmosets.