“Never lend books for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent me.”
“The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them.”
While keeping up with the daily demands of our monthly journal, its editorial meetings, our Rail Curatorial Projects, our poetry readings, and other events, we have all been consumed the entire summer with the renovation of our old headquarters in Greenpoint as well as of our new one at Industry City in Sunset Park, making them both the most comfortable and conducive work environments. Between the construction of new bookcases, tabletops, and chairs for each space, I relished the chance, whenever it was granted to me, to reorganize the thousands of books on history, art history, philosophy, psychology, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, as well as the many catalogues, magazines, journals, and other printed matter.
One night, I came across an old notebook containing endless notes from my first trip to Europe in 1987 on a traveling fellowship. In a particular entry on Madrid, it was not my observations of the great paintings at the Prado that I first encountered on a projected screen in art history class that struck me, but a lengthy paragraph on Velázquez’s portrait of the poet Francisco de Quevedo at the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan. How effortlessly the paint seemed to convey the luminous presence of the old poet in three-quarter view, so expressive with the sprinkles of his white hair. I remember the distinct sensation of goosebumps that I felt allover my skin as though, through the eloquence of each brushstroke, I was conversing with the master: Velázquez himself.
Years later, a friend gave me Alberto Manguel’s popular book A History of Reading as a birthday gift when it was published in 1996. As I began to read the introduction I made connections between my love of reading, my experience of Velázquez’s portrait of de Quevedo, and the human desire to communicate with those who lived before us. Manguel captured it succinctly:
Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. Like other readers, I have an absolute trust in the capability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words long ago, perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the 16th century, called “conversations with the dead.” In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.
I distinctly remember the excitement of wanting to share what I had read with friends who possessed a similar love of reading. I was also happy indeed to have remembered various things that other writers, poets, and philosophers had said about reading—from Ezra Pound, for example: “No man understands a deep book until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents;” from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: “A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to peer out;” from Alice James: “What a sense of superiority it gives one to escape reading a book which everyone else is reading;” and two of my favorites: one from Mark Twain, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them,” and the other from Emily Dickinson, “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man—.”
Over a span of fourteen years as a publisher, editor, and writer, I have been able to share my love of reading with my colleagues at the Rail, and with countless friends, acquaintances, and general readers of our journal. I should mention that ever since the Guest Critics page was initiated in February 2012 (where a guest is invited to focus on a subject of their interest, and to invite their friends to join in—multiplying participation in the Rail though social networks), our online readership has increased threefold. This is not counting our print circulation of 20,000 issues each month, distributed around New York City and available by subscription.
As we’ve decided to keep the reference library in our headquarters in Greenpoint, I recently told our two friends, the painters David Novros and Joanna Pousette-Dart, that we need to build a new one for our new headquarters at Industry City. They relayed the message to our mutual friend, Lowery Stokes Sims, the art historian, Curator Emerita of the Museum of Arts and Design (and guest critic of the Rail’s April 2014 issue), who kindly donated over 200 volumes of artist monographs, art history and art criticism books, art journals and magazines, and catalogues. Thank you, Lowery! I therefore take this opportunity to invite those of you who may consider donating more books to our second reference library at Industry City. The more books, the better, as the Rail expands its reach and welcomes more new young writers than ever who are eager to create their own readership.
Gearing up for the Rail’s fifteen-year celebration, we’ve lined up quite a few events this fall. On September 27, a poetry and fiction reading with John Keene and Paolo Javier; on October 6, an interview with Nancy Princenthal on Agnes Martin; in November, a book launch for Irving Sandler’s newest memoir; and in December, our next Rail Curatorial Project. For invitations, please sign up for our mailing list by visiting brooklynrail.org, and clicking on Mailing List.
Now I leave you with a segment from Donald Sutherland’s biography of Gertrude Stein, which appears as an epigraph in Manguel’s introduction of his new book Curiosity (Yale University Press, 2015): “On her deathbed, Gertrude Stein lifted her head and asked: ‘What is the answer?’ When no one spoke, she smiled and said: ‘In that case, what is the question?’”
Yours in solidarity,
This issue is in memory of four extraordinary individuals whose work and commitment have made the art world more profoundly compelling and humane: Marion “Kippy” Boulton Stroud (b. 1939), Melva Bucksbaum (b. 1933), Miriam Schapiro (b. 1923), and Susanne Hilberry (b. 1943).
P.S. I should mention that everyone has his or her own way of dealing with grief and sadness. They may take long walks, cry quietly in a room, or go to a park and sit alone. Mine entails reorganizing books and cleaning them off with a natural bristle brush and magnetic dusting cloth, as well as with slices of white bread. This month I have done plenty of that kind of grieving.
Lastly, I’d like to send our belated birthday wishes to David Novros, Jarrett Earnest, Alex Bacon, and heartfelt congratulations to our other friends Jack Flam and Denyse Montegut, and Casimir Nozkowski and Hannah Bos, on their marriages. And two more congratulations, to our board member Daniel Desmond and his wife Uya Chuluunbaatar on their first-born, Temuuleh Desmond, and to Charles Bernstein, who was awarded the 2015 Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry.
Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.