Those who know me well know that I am slightly book-obsessed. I go to the library book sales, I do the literary memes on Facebook, I obsessively update my Goodreads shelves. (60 books ‘to-read’ & counting!) As I’ve said before, it’s not just the love of reading that drives me. There is a definite love of the book as physical object, something I share with my husband.
Even though books are a mass-produced commodity, there are still hints of book-making as a craft: notes on the type, the bookmarker ribbons sewn into the binding, how the pages are cut. For an arts & craft-y girl like me, I love these touches, the details that show the human traces of manufacturing. All of these indicate a history of value & craft just beyond the edges of the physical. Which is always a subtle anticipatory feeling.
All of these thoughts & reactions tie into my larger fascination with collections. I don’t think I realized how revealing a collection could be until my husband gave me The Teddy Bear Encyclopedia. These are not just the typical stuffed animals you grab off the shelf at Toys ‘R Us. There is a teddy bear gas mask; there are elegant anthropomorphic bears, there are multi-use teddy bears that doubled as purses & accessories for women.
Not only do the construction & the materials of the bears represent economical & industrial trends, but their appearance & usage represent their changing cultural value as well. A bear-purse complete with mirror, lipstick & powder puff illustrates infantilizing attitudes toward women just as effectively as novels like The Woman in White or Indiana. At one point, the market or the ideal existed for the product to be created.
It’s a little weird to admit that something like a book on collecting teddy bears has changed the way you see things, but it’s true. Not only have I written stories about some of the bears, I keep playing with the ideas of collection and meaning. It’s changed how I look at my books as well.
I try to visualize them as teddy bears.
Seriously, my own collection of books becomes bittersweet because the same sense of changing value and cultural trends are there. With the advent of the Kindle and sites like Project Gutenberg, the book as physical object is changing once again. I hesitate to say they are dying, mostly because I’d like to be an optimist. Call me unreal, but I think humans gravitate toward the physical because it can become a crossroads of lives, histories, meanings & intents. For now, I struggle to visualize another way.