Gnomicon 255

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Introduction to Gnomica

Gnomicon  255
Tuesday 22 January 2013
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Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?
Henry Ward Beecher (24 Jun 1813 – 8 Mar 1887)

Or – to update this pre-digital era reformer and divine – ‘Where is human nature so weak as on Amazon-dot-com?’

It’s quite frightening, actually.  Resolve melts like the proverbial butter under the sun!

As long as I can recall I have loved books and reading. And books not so much as carriers of great stories as just physical objects.  I loved the smell they had back then, and the need back there to use a special knife-like page splitter to separate the pages that were printed on one arc, folded and then glued together into books that you had to split open so to speak.  I can still see the little flakes of cut paper raining down on the desk or floor as the ‘knife’ cut up and down the seamless folds of page edges.

I still have that double passion for books and the reading of them, and over the many years since that beginning I have given away or sold probably close to five or six thousand books, all in the interest of making room for more and yet more books.  One might go so far as to categorize this obsession in terms of psychopathology – while bibliophilia lacks the requisite intensity, bibliomania gets closer to the raw core.

The fact is that I actually feel uncomfortable if there are no books in the rooms and study spaces I sleep in, eat it, just loaf in.  They are in effect part of the general furniture.  I stack them almost everywhere, but not – as one disturbed and disturbing academic I once briefly knew did — in my oven and freezer.

The source for this affliction is, I am confident, my maternal grandfather (born 1875) in whose household in Sweden I grew up from ages four to nine in the years of the early forties during WWII while my father was in distant America – and later.  He was an M.D., and certainly by the standards of his day, a highly educated man, a man with a very broad range of non-medical interests that he shared with my (younger) brother and me.  He let the two of us roam the endless shelves of his huge (monstrously large, it seemed to me at the time) library, all the books on the lower shelves that we could reach.  All his medical text (written, in the practice of the profession in his day, in German) were largely inaccessible so high up, but on occasion I did get to look through some of them – and the fabulously detailed medical illustrations therein done in exquisite line drawing and carbon dust are with me still today. To get some appreciation of what kind of art I am talking about, check out this high master of the craft, Max Brödel [8 Jun 1870 – 26 Oct 1941] (born in Germany but often thought of as the father of medical illustration in America) and his art, as well as the modern epigones like Frank Netter and his art that I used to copy religiously in gouache (cf. further), and the many superb practitioners who belong to the AMI (Association of Medical Illustrators). [The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine – where Brödel got his start illustrating for the likes of Harvey Cushing – still has a highly respected Department of Medical Illustration, including much of Brödel’s original art – see here.]

I am again confident that no small reason for my own initial and continuing interest in art and, especially, technical-scientific illustration (a few of my own lumbering efforts here and here and here) is due to what I first saw in my grandfather’s vast library all those years ago.

To this day – even with all the wonderful art of every imaginable type freely available on the endless internet — I still buy (far too many) art books of every imaginable type – and not least books on illustration techniques, human and animal anatomy, botanical illustrations, car designs … whatever can be rendered in pencil or paint on paper:  it is a huge, almost sensual pleasure for me to hold these tomes in my lap or lay them on a table and slowly savor the great artistic skill and beauty of these illustrations rendered so meticulously and with such breath-taking precision in so many different media – and transferred to prints and plates in books with such superb expertise.

Often I have thought that one of the many truly fortunate gifts in my life that came to me by pure chance was to grow up during very formative years in the marvelous household of such an inquisitive and intellectually eclectic man.

As I’ve said before, everybody should be so lucky as to have had a grandfather like my grandfather!

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