The Block Museum is honored to count the Evanston Public Library as one of its key program partners. We love so many of the Library’s offerings but one of our favorites is EPL’s longstanding Tumblr blog Readers Of Evanston, profiles in the proud tradition of Humans of New York or Humans of Northwestern.
About the Blog:
“Evanston is full of enthusiastic readers of all ages who love to talk about books and ideas that have inspired them. Discover people you know: neighbors, friends, shop owners, and community workers by following our photography blog Readers of Evanston. Find out what books have been meaningful to your fellow Evanstonians. We are a community that loves to read! More than 550 Readers of Evanston have been photographed and interviewed so far.
We take these pictures out on the street as we attempt to learn about the people of Evanston through candid portrait photography and conversation about the books that matter most to them. We are all made up of stories. They fill our lives. We want to know your most meaningful tales: the first book you read, the character you would most want to come to life, the first line of your autobiography, the book you never wanted to end. Tell us.”
The Block Museum staff recently spent a day with Readers of Evanston talking about the books that inspire them and the role that literature plays in their lives.
Essi Rönkkö – Curatorial Associate for Special Projects
“I’ve always liked both Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, but I didn’t know much about their story. I learned they led such interesting lives from reading [Patti Smith’s memoir] ‘Just Kids.’ When they were just getting started and living on the streets to make ends meet was especially resonant to me. It’s a very peculiar story that they have, of working in different mediums but being each other’s muses. They helped each other achieve their own potentials.”
Holly Warren – Engagement Coordinator
“I’m going to tell you about my favorite book of all time. It’s by Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote ‘The Remains of the Day’ and ‘Never Let Me Go,’ which are considered masterpieces. ‘The Remains of the Day’ won a bunch of awards, and ‘Never Let Me Go’ has changed everybody’s life. But when I read a ‘Paris Review’ interview with him in which he said that ‘The Unconsoled’ was widely considered his worst book, I decided I would read that one first. It turns out, the book is a 500-page, rambling, surreal tome about a washed-up city in Europe trying to revamp its identity as an amazing venue for performance art by getting a washed-up artist to come back and do a comeback performance. Basically, everybody fails. The book is a comedy of errors. [Ishiguro’s] idea in writing this is that he had gotten such great accolades for writing perfect books that he wanted to write something imperfect.
“As a fiction writer myself, I find it both jarring and encouraging to see what other people can get away with. It gives me a freedom to say, ‘This might be imperfect, and I might fail, but look at these other people failing, and how much pleasure we can take from their supposedly failed works.’ It’s the same with art: If you see a piece that’s confusing to you, it’s still giving you some kind of fodder to think about things. Imperfections and failures almost always give you more complex, conflicted thoughts. It can be frustrating and not always fun but it’s a good exercise and a way to grow.
“Anytime I’m having a bad time writing, I go back and read an interview from ‘The Paris Review’ because much of what the artists in it talk about is how painful the writing process is. Reading that allows me to think, ‘OK, if he can do this–even though I will never be Kazuo Ishiguro–I can do this too.’”
Lisa Corrin – Block Museum Ellen Philips Katz Director
“My father was once a photographer for the Book of the Month Club, and one of the books they left him was called ‘The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature,’ which was copyrighted in 1955, before I was even born. When I was a little girl, my mother would read to me from this book. It’s visually exquisite and incredibly varied because every section is illustrated by a different illustrator. The contents are also astounding, because the book starts off with what you would want to read a very little child—nursery rhymes—and then it gets into more complicated poetry—Robert Louis Stevenson, and my personal favorite, ‘The Goops’ who had very bad table manners. It also has children’s stories, from Aesop’s Fables to Henny Penny to the Velveteen Rabbit excerpts and Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter with beautiful illustrations and part of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ As a child, it was very hard for me to get through the book because the illustrations at the beginning were so beautiful, and I would get so stuck on the pictures and the poetry that I don’t think I ever read my way through every single one of the stories.
“My first love was poetry, not art, because the poetry that was in this book became so important to me. Yesterday, we had a staff party, and I was even reciting the poems I learned before I could read. Poetry has been my lifelong passion, and I owe it all to this book, because this is where I had my first experience of rhymes. I hope that, when mothers are thinking about how to encourage their kids to read—and to read broadly, to appreciate the sound and musicality of the English language and what it can do—that they’ll think about reading not only nursery rhymes but also poetry to their children, because it had such an effect on me.
“My other favorite book is ‘Moby-Dick’ [by Herman Melville], which I love not least because of the beauty of its language. I first read the book when I was on my honeymoon with my husband Peter ten years ago. What a crazy thing to do, read ‘Moby-Dick’ on your honeymoon! We were in Maine and it was very rainy, and we went to a little bookshop in Somesville that’s no longer there on Mount Desert Island. I bought ‘Moby-Dick’ and also Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about the original ‘Moby-Dick,’ which they recently made a film about called ‘In the Heart of the Sea.’ I couldn’t put down Nathaniel Philbrick’s book; I read it all night long, which gave me terrible nightmares. And then the next day I started ‘Moby-Dick.’
“The beauty of the language was so dazzling to me that I kept having to read aloud to my husband. The description of taking the whale apart is some of the most grotesque, distressing description in the history of literature. For me the book looks into the heart of the American psyche, particularly the connection between nature and capitalism. The brutal way in which this beautiful creature is dismantled for its oil, in order to be sold off limb by limb speaks to what we do to the environment in the interest of money. We are now seeing how this continued unbroken cycle is putting the whole Earth in danger, and I could not help but read that book as a foreshadowing of what has come to pass. But also with some of the most beautiful use of the English language in the history of literature.
“The Pittsfield Library in Massachusetts has objects that belonged to Melville. Libraries have more than books. They have all kinds of other artifacts. People should know, when they go to a library and go through that card catalogue online, that there are many opportunities to look at, for example, a letter that a President may have written, to learn about the history of the place where they’re living, through the actual documents of the people who lived there hundreds of years before: diaries, photographs. For me, ‘Moby-Dick’ is not only the greatest work of literature in our language, but it’s also amazing because of the way Melville’s story has been preserved in Pittsfield in the shadow of Mount Greylock, where it was written. Seeing these artifacts of Melville’s reminded me of the ability of a library to bring a writer’s whole world to life.
“Literary history can teach us so much about ourselves because it creates a sense of place. From something as simple as the changing shape of a cloud, writers create a universe and uncover insights into our soul that without literature, we could never find.“