BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 113

Cover to Cover: The World of the Book

It is the first thing on a Monday morning and the small ground floor gallery currently housing the National Library of Wales’s (NLW) Cover to Cover exhibition is far from quiet. The whirring, tinny strains of a film soundtrack are sidling in while through its propped-open back door all manner of clattering can be heard. Clinking sounds of bottles in crates and the rattle of crockery on trolleys destined for Caffi Pen Dinas next door are interspersed by an intermittent, hard slamming of lift doors. And there is this constant river of people inside: NLW’s staff, lanyards swaying, strides through the gallery, rubber soles squeaking, and leather soles sliding on the varnished parquet. Dodging their flow, I scan the show.

Dimly-lit, floor-to-ceiling, glass-fronted display cabinets flank the space. In its centre is a picket-fenced child’s area containing a red and white starred wigwam, bean bags, book-shaped rugs and a wheeled shelf of picture-books. Suspended above hangs an array of flying books, with From Egypt to e-Book on one side, and Cover to Cover on the other. Practised at getting to the nub of convoluted data, NLW’s timeline from the book’s conception as papyrus scrolls in 2400 BC to its predicted demise in 2009 (when Amazon’s sales of Kindle e-books surpassed printed books) is clear and informative. Cover to Cover is equally so, with its tracking of the creation of the book from hand-written manuscript to its bound form. Meanwhile, a wall-mounted monitor is relaying an old black-and-white film, which shows the rather exhaustive process of unbinding a book. Narrated by a voice akin to Noggin the Nog’s Oliver Postgate’s honeyed, soporific tones and overlaid with that continuing distant echo of plonkety-plonk film music, I’m being lulled into a kind of early 1960s Jackanory Play School bubble and urgently in want of a story. But this isn’t a show about reading or indeed being read to. This is a show about the book as an object, a symbol, a manifestation of ideas.

Beneath the From Egypt to e-Book timeline are clusters of books on mini plinths. Arranged into groups are potentially explosive books, such as the Quran, the Bible, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Engel’s & Marx’s The Communist Manifesto; influential books of literature, such as Cervantes’s Don Quixote and – here in tiny, pocket-size form – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Alongside these are children’s classics, such as CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh a deft juxtaposition in recognition of these books’ equal potency. Then, there are banned books, such as Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Orwell’s Animal Farm and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and a children’s book, Richardson & Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three. Fronted by a perfectly innocuous illustration of three penguins; why on earth was this banned?

There are some real delights, such as a remarkably tiny book of Welsh hymns, given in in the 1830s as a Sunday school prize. Returning to the Cover to Cover exhibit and almost colliding with a large man marching through, an empty mug in one hand and a banana in the other, I’m stopped by a single sheet of pale-blue, foolscap. A list of Dylan Thomas’s handwritten rhyming words. Glad, gash, bash, black – penned as minutely as any of the Brontës’s juvenilia. And who could not be enchanted by Old King Cole, at 1mm x 1mm, the smallest printed book in the world? But, as one visitor bemoans in the Visitor’s Book, why isn’t it magnified so that we can actually see it?

It’s a bit frustrating. Trapped behind glass like tigers in a zoo, all those sensational volumes that I want to touch, smell and read. Of course, I understand. This is a library, a temple dedicated to book preservation. But, though a good rainy-day option, Cover to Cover is a tad sterile. Give me a little more viscera, a little more anarchy. Something like Orton and Halliwell’s defaced public-library books perhaps, or Brian Dettmer’s altered tomes or Nabokov’s irreverent marginalia in his copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

A man with a walkie-talkie in his back-pocket lifts the floor-latch and shuts the back door. Leaving Postgate manqué still purring on, I exit, inspired, like The Archers’ Linda Snell, to make that list of classics I’ve yet to read.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.

Currently at the National Library of Wales until February 3rd 2018.


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