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The Book

Around about 2005, six years ago if you are not good at math, we began a process of writing a book. This was not intended to be our only book, merely our first, but from this perspective of it being not-yet published, well, it is looking rather lonely.

In a nutshell, the process so far has been something like this: there, in a flash, was an idea (that’s the easy and cheap part). Admittedly, it was an ambitious project from the get-go, every aspect time-consuming, but we are not talking Tolstoy here. This is non-fiction and does not require a life’s perspective or commitment. We had a fondness for city architecture, mostly uniquely designed houses (since we live in a city that actually has houses) that spoke to us in a meaningful way because they were fashioned with personality, verve even. The first months of the project required a lot of looking. Then there was the weeding – of choices and of thinking. More looking, more weeding, rethinking. Followed by months spent in records rooms, gleaning information about the properties. Databases were built. Photographic shoots were done in various excursions, mostly in seasons where the houses were visible through trees, but not too bare looking. Two different cameras were used, no special lighting except how luck found it. We walked and stared and took notes about what we were seeing.

Then the actual writing. More weeding. How to organize? Categorizing and grouping based on our impressions – this is a book of impressions as well as facts. A layout was needed, a page design for the generated text and images to do justice to a very thoroughly considered idea and execution. More months of design work, inside and for the cover. Quark and Photoshop became our best friends, fonts were selected. When it reached a presentable stage, we offered it to a large university press, one whose interests tend toward urban topics. They liked it, we were thrilled, we felt the investment was worth it on every level. We had many emails to and fro with the editor in charge; this person, who had encouraged us, then kept our book as a hostage for two years. After those two years, he turned it down.

Devastation was an understatement. Disappointment colored our efforts. It wasn’t that we were not familiar with rejection, but like a bad relationship gone south suddenly and unexpectedly (always because it is the other person’s fault, of course), we were set adrift. Gathering our wits and strength, we sent it to other potential publishers. Naturally, the university press had held onto it until just about the time that the economy had tanked, thank you very much. The rejection continued and not a few publishers said (and this is hard to write), “if only you had submitted this a couple of years ago, it would have been a go.” Damn that university press twice now.

We sat frozen for a time on this project and moved forward with other things that we had put aside for our commitment to this, our lifelong project. In 2010, we decided that we had put so much into it that we had to finish what we started. Out we went again, this time revisiting the properties to see if they had altered during the lapse of time, or if our feelings about them had diminished. We added some things new, removed a few that had been renovated out of recognition and interest, found some additional information about a few places in the new technology-ized city databases and on websites that weren’t available in the first go-round. We rewrote, reshot, reconfigured, redesigned. We are going to have it printed ourselves. Why? Because we like it. And we still, six years later, think it is worthwhile to put out there. How many things can you say that about in this everything-is-replaceable world?

So, all of this preamble is to talk about the placeness of process and problem-solving. Of having an idea, acting on it and seeing it come to fruition, no matter the hurdles. It is finding resourcefulness and determination in yourself and your ideas, making them develop when they are worthy of pursuit. It is a place of self that wants to share with others: show and tell – it seemed like a great idea in grade school and it still is now. It is the creative urge and the not giving up that makes things possible. Maybe it won’t be the best book out there but it will be the only one exactly like it. Unless, of course, the university press has come up with their own version of our book that they claimed not to want to publish. Then we will be discussing the placeness of lawsuits.

Our discoveries of placeness can often be external but they are always put through an internal filter, the great determiner of placeness. But here we are, faced with finding placeness within ourselves, the placeness that moves us forward in a process of creativity: at first it is a dream, then the struggle happens, now, soon, it becomes a reality. The book.

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In the Gutter

Could there be anything, anywhere with more placeness, and artfulness, than a book? In the small amount of space that a book takes up in our hands and in front of our eyes there are worlds. It is both its own place and any place. And its placeness is multifold: It is not just those well-described universes created by writers and laid down in ink on a page – the intended placeness – but also those spinning galaxies of life and motivations that we invent in our own minds, that we bring to the reading experience from our own histories and backgrounds, in partnership with and reaction to those dark, squiggly symbols that are words and that we interpret into mental pictures. It is this self-imagined world – in which we can conjure up and “see” people we’ve never met, and buildings and towns we’ve never visited, even creatures and things that do not exist – that is at the heart of the magical placeness of the book.

But there is another, book-related placeness that, perhaps, is the most powerful, and personal, and evocative of all.

Let’s digress, momentarily – in order to make a soon-to-be-made point – to a discussion of the new iPad. It, like so many of the Jonathan Ive/ Steve Jobs/ Apple mechanisms, created not just a curiosity in us, or a mere desire, but a lust. (Or, rather, it has done so in one of us … the male one of us.) And not the least of which because of its ebook-reading capabilities. The iPad’s screen is bright and clear and can, in an instant, “become” any book, any word-built world, any brain we desire to see or meet or, like avatars, live in. And to bridge the gap between what we have had for centuries and what it offers, the iPad produces a brilliant simulacrum of the old-media reading experience. Turn the seductive, handheld device sideways, in landscape orientation (an appropriate descriptor for the viewing of worlds), and the screen “becomes” a book, with the familiarity of facing pages. What’s more, with just a horizontal swipe of a finger across the smooth glass screen, one can “turn a page,” the astonishing software emulating the comforting rhythm and flow we of all older generations have come to define as book reading. You can sit, and read, and flick pages, in a hammock, at a table, even under the covers, with a book that brings along its own flashlight.

It has everything a book has … except essential placeness. That is, it itself lacks so much of what makes a place a place, and a book a book. The slide of a finger across frictionless glass does not have the scratch, the catch, the warm roughness and stubbly caress of paper’s subtle resistance. One cannot slip one’s finger under a page and hold it there, in sweet anticipation of feverishly flipping it over to follow a tense story line. The iPad pages have no smell. They do not bend. They cannot tear. They will not age. It is not easy to jot down that “NO!” or “YES!!” next to a passage that inflames you or defines you, and you cannot discern the personal affront or happy agreement felt by the person or persons who read the book before you, because we cannot see their particular handwriting and underlining, confident or tentative, in pencil or ink, that tells us that real people have touched this page and been touched by it, and that now we are part of that continuum, that shared reading journey. In fact, with the iPad, there is no sense, no evidence, no mark indicating that anyone has read this before you: all books are new and hold no spiritual or physical residue of those who lived and read before us.

In the physical and, perhaps, metaphysical sense, a book is like a plot of land; an ebook is like the deed to it – with it you can find the land, and know it, but never feel the soil sift  through your fingers.All this, and more, about the iPad (and other similar electronic devices) we’re sure has been written. But when it comes to true placeness in the book-reading experience, where the real art lies – the art of the physical book, the vehicle per se, not the words or pictures on the page – we may find no better symbol of the difference between old and new than in the lowly, literally overlooked gutter.

Indeed, of all the components of a book – cover, page, words, illustrations – the most unduplicatable component outside the physical realm is the gutter: that gap, that valley between facing pages, the gully that swoops down to the binding, that chasm of process that allows a book to be a book. It is by the gutter that we can gauge our reading progress (as the sage said, to measure what we’ve lost). It is in the gutter where we slide our bookmark or slip in that ribbon that carries with it the memories of other gutters and others times, and of the circumstances that brought that ribbon into our lives. In the gutter of second-hand books and library books, we find the evidence, the detritus of others, and in our own books read again we bump into our own leavings: a hair with a color of bygone times or long-gone people, crumbs from the meal or snack we had in our first life with the book, receipts we thought we’d misplaced or thrown out – in that little chasm, that caesura, dwell so many of the wonders of reading and of being a reader.

If living is an art, then the gutter of a book – inimitable in an iPad, ebook world – is a strange, unexpected locus of the art of intellectual life. A book is more than just viewable words, organized. It is a place where we take things from and put things in, and leave ourselves in some way. It is like speech, in that it is the spaces between that can make all the difference. In the rush to “progress,” we are so worried about being left behind, of falling through the cracks. Sometimes, the cracks are where it’s at.

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