Why We Need to Paint Books Now Why We Need to Paint Books Now
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Why We Need to Paint Books Now

by Anne Trubek

January 19, 2009

Richard Baker's books portraits

When I first saw Richard Baker's portraits of books in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine, I smiled, enchanted. That New Directions edition of The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound he painted with a realism tempered by soft edges? I have that same book, almost that same copy, buried on some  bookshelf of mine. I've owned it for decades, and it is in just about the same dog-eared state as the one Baker painted.Then I looked at his portraits more closely, his Poems By Wallace Stevens, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Why, exactly, did I liked these paintings?  Did I admire them as paintings?  Or am I admiring the original book designer's work? Or do I just like them because I like the books represented?I prefer his painting of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to his The Henry Miller Reader. Is this just because I like Faulkner better than Miller?Many questions for such simple small paintings.
Baker's portraits prompt unusual disjunction between form and content. I loved the formal conceit: realistic still lifes of paperback editions of literary works.  But when I considered why I liked one better than the other it seemed content trumped over form: if I were to buy one, I would choose one of a book I like, no matter what the cover looked like, or how well Baker rendered it.Then the paintings took on yet another twist, one that was brought to me by the news of the day, received via the Internet. Sometime between the after Christmas sales and the Obama's move to D.C. the paintings became memento moris.  Their form took the fore and content receded to the background.Let me back up.Early December, 2008. I discover Baker's paintings while reading insistent twitter updates from themediaisdying, an endless blog posts about layoffs and cutbacks at publishing companies.Mid-December, 2008. Strange news invades the media march of doom. Kindle, the Amazon e-reader, sold phenomenally well in the second half of the year, when nothing did well, not to mention phenomenally well. Amazon started Wii-like alerts to notify people when new Kindles would be in stock.
Late December, 2008. Without warning, the tipping point arrived. To put it hyperbolically, the printed book died with 2008.  Although this event had been forecast for a decade, the moment itself seemed to show up rather suddenly. Paper publishing plummets; e-readers skyrocket. I subscribe to a listserv for scholars who study the history of the book (The Society of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), and wouldn't you know, us perennially derriere guard academics were in agreement on this, too: the age of digital publishing had arrived.Baker's portraits took on yet another layer of meaning. Now I saw them as still lifes in the tradition of mementos mori, paintings that serve as reminders of mortality. A copy of Frank O'Hara's poems become like a skull, or sands through the hour glass: symbols of death, time passing, the end."In the end, these paintings stand against loss and for reverie, memory, optimism, desire, and love," Baker writes of his work. Yes. But might they also demarcate a moment, the sundering of one era from the next?  If my Google Alerts and RSS feeds are to be believed, content is immaterial. It is form to which we must attend: ink, brush, pixel, canvas, paper, screen.Paintings by Richard Baker, via Poets & Writers
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Why We Need to Paint Books Now