#813: Speak for the Trees

July 7th, 2017

It was a pleasure to burn.

That’s what the words said, the first few lines of “Fahrenheit 451″ superimposed on an iSomething device over video of burning, crackling, blackened and changed books. A dark and gory image for word nerds, it hurts to watch books burning. I closed the panel quickly and turned to the rest of the wall of panels bearing the names of great American literary works.

The wall of panels is a multimedia exhibit at the American Writers Museum, a factory-fresh temple to the American word lodged between a bank and a Noodles & Company on a stretch of Michigan Avenue that’s touristy even by Michigan Avenue standards.

Turning one panel triggers audio of Jack Kennedy screaming about not what your country can do for you. Another shows a photo of an early e.e. cummings draft. Another reveals an actual pocket watch and tortoiseshell hair comb to tell the story of “Gift of the Magi.” Sketches of the “Make Way for Ducklings” ducks. A real mosquito in amber for “Jurassic Park.”

I’ll admit some trepidation at visiting the museum. A museum dedicated to American writers seems too glib, too self-satisfactory and self-rewarding. Museums are for dead things, be they dinosaur skeletons, remnants of long-resolved wars or paintings completed years/decades/centuries ago.

Writing, however, is living. It’s real and vibrant, or at least is in my imagination. I was worried seeing my favorite authors canonized like this would remind me they were gone. It’s one of the rules — saints are dead.

Also, as I worried about before, the planning committee was, like, really really white.

I shouldn’t have worried too much.

Although any lit nerd will have opinions — mine were that the collection exhibited an admirable view toward racial diversity, even if I could have stood more under-the-radar authors, and that one of the planners must really super-love the Beats — I thought the museum was wonderful, a $12 oasis a floor above the tourist district madness.

There was a table of lovingly restored typewriters for patrons to leave notes, and two laptops where others could contribute to an exquisite corpse of a story, in this case one where strangers collaborated to create a meandering tale of a dog named Fluffy and a nameless hat.

There were interactive exhibits where you “Mad Libbed” famous poems and stories, then were graded on how well your word choices matched the authors’ originals. A room of banners touting Chicago authors, and honoring the fictional characters like Walter Younger, Maud Martha and Mr. Dooley who defined this town.

There were physical exhibits and digital ones, permanent ones and temporary rotating exhibits, which leads me to how my words are going to become a palm tree.

After the room of panels that showed me watch fobs and yelled at me about what I could do for my country, I stepped into a temporary exhibit called Palm: All Awake in the Darkness. The small exhibit hall had been converted into a hushed greenhouse, where the words of poet W.S. Merwin were read aloud over live plants and video of his Hawaiian garden.

At the end of the mid-oasis oasis, patrons are presented sheets of paper and invited to write… anything, really. At the end of the show’s run in October, every line every person wrote — secular or profane, wise or gibbering — will be shipped to Merwin for use as mulch to use in his palm garden.

Anyone who writes worries about the fate of his/her words. Will they end up in a Word doc no one reads? A bookshelf no one visits? On a server that gets a wrongful visit from a magnet one day or, worse, canonized and made dead through worship?

In a museum dedicated to writers, on a strip of Michigan Avenue dedicated to commerce and Chicagoana, there’s a brief sliver of months where your words will become a living thing.

That’s the best tribute to this museum I have.

Visit the museum

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