#65: Book Porn, Vol. 2: The Monk

September 26th, 2012

The feel of old paper. The look of type. Even the smell, if you want to get that far into it. There’s an undeniable fetish aspect to books.

Which makes a certain strip of 57th Street in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood the red light district.

Powell’s Books is there, “the first Powell’s,” a young woman with eyes the color of stained pine clarified after I asked about the same-named store in Oregon. She was calm and collegiate, didn’t blink as often as people should.

A few blocks down is 57th Street Books, which, like its sister store the Seminary Co-op, gives shoppers the unexpectedly enjoyable experience of seeking out their books in a sprawling subterranean mole rat colony, a eusocial group where some of the myopic, toothy customers are clearly part of the caste that will never breed.

And then there’s O’Gara and Wilson, Ltd. Antiquarian Booksellers, where the young man sits like the monk.

The monk is a man-sized statue in the back of the store, beyond the freestanding shelves, beyond the wide aisles stacked high with centuries of the written word, beyond the bison head overlooking it all. In back of that all is a black-robed monk set forever hunched at what we would now call a drawing table, illuminating a religious manuscript.

“A Medieval Scriptorium,” a greening copper plaque declares. “Showing the method by which books were made before the invention of movable type in Europe. Presented by The Regensteiner Corporation, printer. Chicago.”

Regensteiner’s original presentation was to the Museum of Science and Industry, an article clipped and set next to the monk’s Bible page explained.

A stack of old Popular Science magazines sat by the monk’s ornate kneeler, the top two issues highlighting an electronic harpoon for whalers and the new 1953 Plymouths and Packards, respectively.

The statue is forever hunched, forever holding up a right hand positioned for a quill. Poking from under the monk’s black hood was a reverent smile, the likes of which I can picture on those who saw God in a properly flourished vowel.

Up in the front of the store, a young man with curly, sand-colored hair was doing it for real.

I wonder if he knew he was doing it, hunching over into the computer screen of the store’s inventory with the same wonky piety and bad posture of the monk at his scriptorium. He had the monk’s same slim smile. He had the look of calm.

For some of us, books are fetish objects — I gasped when the pine-eyed girl at Powell’s directed me to a John Drury book I had only seen in libraries. But for others, books are even more. They’re calm and order. They’re peace and precision. They are, for those who believe, God. God chopped up like Osiris and scattered around the world.

God’s view of 18th-century math goes in this text. God’s early lithographs of tropical birds go here. God’s bad novels and God’s strategies for chess go here and here, respectively. Every one and every thing is a piece of the jigsaw, every novel and textbook part of a grander whole. You could reassemble all creation if you just learned enough, if you just owned enough books.

It’s religious, trying to put God in a properly gilded “n” or trying to cobble together a universe from a thousand writers’ words.

But for the slacks and a button-up in place of the robe, the young bookseller and the monk could be twins, forever smiling with calm as they hunched over, trying to make the world.

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You are currently reading #65: Book Porn, Vol. 2: The Monk by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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