Thursday, December 29, 2011

A History of a Life in a List

A friend gave me a formidable and bright book this season called, A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, which I am flipping through slowly, starting with "Early Writing Tablet," depicting the rationing of beer (90), jumping to "Admonitions Scroll" (248), "Mexican Codex Map" (545) and distracted by "Pieces of Eight" (516). The "Admonitions Scroll," if you were wondering, contains a parody of instruction for acceptable behavior for Chinese court ladies (the "imperial harem"); it is eleven feet long and was painted somewhere between 500-800 AD. Wait. Those three hundred years make an individual's life look like nothing more than a brushstroke, if that.

Like the premise of the book I just mentioned, articles in newspapers and magazines around this time of year (printed on rustling paper or found somewhere on your screen) tend toward the structure of lists. The year ends, and suddenly we have lists of what we liked about it. Or hated, thought was humorous, lame, delicious, etc. Maybe something two years ago was better, but no matter. A-listing we will go. We can list a history of a year in so many different ways: movies, books, music, games, wars, cities occupied, bank statements, receipts, tickets, emails, failed candidates, candy eaten… (I just learned that "stressed" backwards is "desserts." Not good.) These year-end lists are filled with hope, truly! They acknowledge that we had a list last year and that a list will undoubtedly show up again, albeit in different clothes, on the doorstep of next year as well.

A History of a Life in a List. How about the life list as an approach to making a book? A whole autobiography or collective biography through a theme such as: magazines read at different ages; kinds of cookies baked each year; favorite objects over time. What grabs us, what has kept grabbing at us as we've gotten older? Our taste and what is important to us changes over time, and we can learn by looking. In Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs*, he talks about many of his childhood passions like comic book heroes, some of which he still acknowledges, others he has let go. Ray Bradbury in his book Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You ** writes of an interesting way of making lists; you add "the" to a memory and create a series of nouns or titles. Some items in his list are "The Ravine," "The Fog Horn" and  "The Mirror Maze" (17). The little word "the" can have so much importance and can spark so many ideas. Using a list to organize a set of stories isn't new: Primo Levi used chemical elements as chapter titles and starting points in his book, The Periodic Table.*** From this choice the reader understands Levi's life and passion.

Continuing to flip through the 100 Objects book, I'm finding a magnificent calligraphic work dated 1520-1566 from Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey (458), and a German woodcut by Dürer of a rhinoceros (482) from 1515. In three hundred or five hundred years none of today's material may matter; on the other hand, it may end up in another museum director's book, and our lives may reveal themselves to be some really nice brushsrokes. The books we make now may take us into the future.

Wishing you optimism in 2012.

The above photo was taken in downtown Los Angeles,  California of public art: Wishing Bells by Sook Jin Jo.

*a misleading title, I think: part of his definition of an amateur is a "lover; a devotee; a person driven by passion and obsession to…explore the imaginary world—oneself" (294) , not a half-baked person or brushstroke of a person at all; this book was funny and moving and gave me some insight into the writer
**a ridiculous title, another excellent book
***a good title,  another excellent book

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