What’s really at stake in book-culling decision [Newsroom Essay]

This essay was originally published on Newsroom, February 10, 2020.

Festina lente. Make haste, slowly.

This was the motto of one of the Renaissance’s greatest publishers, whose most famous book the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington in fact owns a copy of.

The motto implies that we must make progress, that we must move forwards, but always with the wisdom of the past. Move forward, but with care; with attention; and with the knowledge that we today could be wrong. The motto has always seemed perfect for a library’s vision statement, summing up its central role. Yet in its decision to deaccession more than 600,000 “overseas” books, our National Library seems to have done us a disservice. “Shortsighted,” Helen Clark said of the cull. All New Zealanders should care deeply about the Library’s decision, because it strikes to the heart of how insular or open we are as a nation.

The Library is culling books from its “Overseas published collections” to “make room for New Zealand, Māori and Pacific stories”. The books being “rehomed” or destroyed (whichever it is, the effect is the same for National Library users) encompass philosophy, religion, arts, science, languages and a great deal more. In public announcements, Library staff keep trying to emphasise the irrelevance of the books they’re culling, like old computer guides from the 1990s. But time and again, even the books they cherry-pick as irrelevant examples seem deeply relevant. We may not learn about how to use a computer from an old computer manual, but we might learn about the ephemerality of new technologies—something the Library itself should be thinking deeply about as it gets rid of physical books. (A line from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind: “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caeser’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal.’”)

We should remember too that what seems niche and irrelevant now may not be in the future. I’m 25, and I have been continually surprised by the turns and detours my interests have taken, leading me deeper into books I had never thought I would be interested in—and I know this is true for many other young people. The idea that young people will read digitally and not need print books is itself a patronising attitude, failing to take into account how technologies fall in and out of favour. Many now see the beginnings of a rejection of technology in young peoples’ lives, and it would not be surprising if this translates to a return to reading physical books.

The Library’s public announcement was good PR—it turned a negative into a positive, because which New Zealander doesn’t want more books about New Zealand? But that decision to cull internationally-published books to make room for New Zealand ones belies a deeply unsettling idea at the heart of the National Library and its master, Internal Affairs. It implies a ‘little New Zealandism’ that many thought we dispensed with decades ago. It’s a form of nationalism: an unsettling one at a time of growing nationalism around the world. In essence, it’s about whether we see ourselves as an insular, navel-gazing nation, concerned only with ourselves and our own affairs; or whether we see ourselves as shaped by and part of a global community, continually learning from the world.

Where the discussion should be centred is on the role of the National Library. The institution has decided that its role is to focus exclusively on “New Zealand, Māori and Pacific stories,” at the expense of the world around us. I expect Library staff might point to the impossibility of our National Library collecting deeply in international materials, or to the British Library’s own emphasis on British collections. But in the first case, the impossibility of collecting everything does not mean we should throw out those international resources we already have. And we simply cannot afford to take the same approach as the British Library, because we are a different nation with different needs. Our geographic distance still affects us daily, and it will always mean we need to go out of our way to connect ourselves to the world.

How will the culling affect New Zealanders? A few examples.

First, the growing number of migrants coming to our shores, who are already and who will become New Zealanders, need a library that contains their own cultural histories too. What might now appear niche, foreign and irrelevant is to someone else their very culture—it might just be the book that connects them to themselves and to others, providing inspiration and social connection. A decision to throw out all the books that might link to our new citizens’ origins is a cultural handicap at best.

Second, New Zealand’s historians, academics and researchers do not study only New Zealand. From New Zealand, they study the world—all corners and all cultures of it. To deaccession any book that does not relate to New Zealand is a severe restriction on the kinds of thought our researchers can do. It throws us back into the days of staid cultural nationalism, when it was thought that New Zealanders were only good for studying New Zealand; and it says to every aspiring New Zealand thinker and researcher, from the start, that all that matters here is that which is within our borders. We should be wary of the current tendency for countries to turn in on themselves.

Finally, a decision like this slowly works its way into the national psyche. Our collective sense of possibility is shaped as much by what knowledge is absent as that which is present. This can be seen clearly in our arts and literature of the 1930s and 40s, when artists and writers struggled to obtain international books. At worst, it forces young people to go overseas—ensuring New Zealand remains a kind of frontier from which intelligent and interested young Katherine Mansfields and Frances Hodgkinses feel they must quickly escape.

No book is obscure to the person who needs it. Many will know the experience of discovering a book that seems essential and necessary to one’s life or studies. You may well be the first person to have requested the book from the library in 30 years, but to you it’s essential, the most important book in the world. A library should exist for those moments, for the intangible, unmeasurable power that even one book can have on an individual life and on a nation’s culture. Right now, if such a book was published overseas, there’s a good chance it has been or is soon to be culled from our National Library. And that thought is a crushing reality to any New Zealander who believes our country must be large enough to encompass at least some of the world, and not just the world within our sandy borders. In the words of John Beaglehole, one of our great historians: “The tradition of an island need not be insularity.”

Two Books on Returning to New Zealand

Paula Morris On Coming Home BWB Book Review
Kirsty Gunn Thorndon Wellington and Home My Katherine Mansfield Project BWB Book Review

“Is it the end of things, really, to come home?”

Two books caught my eye recently, both published by Bridget Williams Books (BWB) in 2014. Both are short; both are published by expatriate New Zealand writers; and both deal with a return to New Zealand. For those aware of my own recent return to New Zealand, the attraction these books immediately had will be entirely unsurprising.

Who was it who said that “Should I stay or should I go” is New Zealand’s unofficial national song? If our literature all stems in some way or another from Katherine Mansfield, then this isn’t too surprising: her youthful clamour to return to London from Wellington is an essential part of her Hero’s Journey, as is her late longing (and failure) to return to Wellington from Europe. From even before Mansfield, pakeha New Zealand’s dilemma has always been a kind of ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. And it’s this syndrome, though never directly named, that both these books end up dealing with most deeply.

Kirsty Gunn’s Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project picks up on Mansfield directly, drawing parallels between hers and the authors’ lives. A return to Wellington for the first time since childhood is the premise of the book, enacting a kind of hypothetical: what would have happened had Mansfield managed to return? Paula Morris’ On Coming Home, on the other hand, is a kind of anthology of writing about the return. From Mulgan and Mansfields’ lifelong longings to return, to Rilke and Rushdies’ exiles, New Zealanders’ arrivals and departures are made significant.

Gunn’s book wears its problems on its cover, with that double-colon title. Hypothetically a book about Thorndon, Wellington, returning to New Zealand and Katherine Mansfield, the book touches on all of these subjects but never quite gets to the heart of them in its 120 pages. Throughout, you can see the books begun and left unfinished, hurriedly stitched together with often-awkward segues (Gunn calls the book a “sketchbook,” implying the real work lies in the future). But despite this, there are lyrical and poignant moments throughout, as when Gunn meets an English broadcaster who has been in Wellington for many years:

“He looked out the window and said that the thing about Wellington was that you couldn’t really leave, the geography of the place forbade it. Oh I know there’s a road, he’d said, two roads to take you north, and the airport… But none of that really counts. The place itself is designed to keep you in.

Or when she muses on the unregarded significance of domestic life:

“Why should it be, I wonder, that other dramas are deemed more important? Why matters of church and state must eclipse the family, and over and over again fiction that takes as its subject the domestic should be sidelined and trivialised? For houses are like theatres. They give light and atmosphere. Every day the curtains at the window are opened and closed to drama and play and scene setting and the endless rich interplay of language and human affairs that’s the everyday, every day. Where we live is surely who we are.”

Passages like these, and others dotted throughout the book, add up to make a memorable chapter in Wellington’s literature and New Zealand’s literature of return.

I wish Morris’ book, on the other hand, had been longer—and it should have been titled The BWB Anthology of Returns to New Zealand. I wanted more throughout! Morris’ deep and cross-cultural reading on the psychology and literature of return adds up to a wonderfully rich, but all too short, compilation of quotations.

“‘It is dangerous to abandon one’s own country,’ James Joyce wrote to Italo Stevo, ‘but it is more dangerous still to return to it, for then your fellow countrymen, if they can, will drive a knife into your heart.'”

“In New Zealand, writes James McNeish, ‘there exists a curious state of tension with the rest of the world, in part because we do not like our sons and daughters to go away… We boast of our infantry going to fight abroad but not our artists and intellectuals whose fight for recognition, out of the great loneliness of being a New Zealander, may be rather more difficult.'”

And Morris’ own lines add up to some of those to be quoted in the Anthology of Returns to New Zealand, whenever that does eventually come out:

“Coming home was the thing; it made you a real New Zealander. You only went away to splash yourself with the heavy cologne of Old Culture before suffocating in it: that’s when you turned back to the bracing fresh air of home.”

Suffocate in that cologne of Old Culture I did: sometimes after a day of reading at the Bodleian my hands and pores would be coated with the thick orange grease of disintegrating leather, from mouldy book bindings. And now that I’m back, I’m still rather enjoying the bracing fresh air of home. Some tell me it will wear off soon, but I wonder if things have changed; as when I sit here at Devonport Library, surrounded by young people from England, Germany, Sweden and the US, tapping on their keyboards and reading books about NZ. The dilemma of “should I stay or should I go” is theirs to deal with now, not mine.

Anyway, does anyone still wear cologne? And maybe the bracing fresh air of the Hauraki Gulf or the Cook Strait is what the world needs these days.

How to Make a Book With Steidl: Gutenberg or Aldus Manutius?

How to make a book with Gerhard Steidl documentary, Gutenberg

I stumbled across this film while looking for documentaries about early printing, Gutenberg and so on. Gerhard Steidl owns and runs Steidl, a publisher-printer based in Göttingen. Known for his photography books with the work of many of the world’s best photographers, they say that Steidl’s ink is printed so thickly on the page that it’s sculptural.

I had previously read this New Yorker article on Steidl’s life and work, which describes things wonderfully. The public interest in Steidl seems to mimic the resurgent interest in people engaged in traditional craft the world over—maybe none more so than Jiro of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Printing is of slightly (only slightly) more interest to me than sushi.

You can stream How to Make a Book With Steidl on Vimeo here. It features Steidl co-producing books with photographers such as Robert Frank and Martin Parr, with some of Steidl’s more idiosyncratic tendencies on display, as from the New Yorker profile:

Artists who work with Steidl typically travel to Göttingen, which is about four miles west of the old border with East Germany. They wait, sometimes for years, to be summoned, and are expected to drop everything when he calls. “It is like going to kiss the Pope’s ring,” Mary Ellen Carroll, the conceptual artist, said. (In 2010, she published “MEC,”—a book of her work, divided into categories including Mistakes, Boredom, and Lies—with Steidl.) When artists arrive in Göttingen, Steidl is often not quite ready to give them his attention, and so they must while away entire days in a library four floors above the company printing press, which runs non-stop, seven days a week. Steidl does not want artists straying into town, or dawdling at a restaurant or a bar where he cannot find them. “He is like a monk,” Robert Polidori, whose work Steidl has published since 2001, says. “He is not a priest—he is there to work, but he doesn’t perform miracles, or sacraments. He delivers.”

Personally, Steidl strikes me as a figure closer to Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio) than Gutenberg. His dedication to culture rather than religion, his mixing business with scholarship and culture, and his commercial success (Gutenberg was bankrupted and lost his type) make this feel true. But I suppose it’s easier just to say Gutenberg!

John Drawbridge: Joyous and International in Spirit

John Drawbridge New Zealand artist abstraction
John Drawbridge. New Zealand House Mural, 1963. Oil on canvas panels. New Zealand Government.

1963, London. A thirty-two year old New Zealander has just found himself at the beginning of a fast upward trajectory through the British art world. The Redfern Gallery, famous for showing the works of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth while they were still students—and, critically for New Zealand, one of Frances Hodgkins’ main London dealers—mounted an exhibition of this Wellingtonian’s works. The Rothschild family purchased a work, as did both the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert. He’d been shown in a summer exhibition alongside the likes of Picasso and Matisse; The Guardian had reviewed his works well. The same year, the artist won a commission to complete a monumental mural for the newly completed New Zealand House, a work that to this day remains one of the high points of twentieth century New Zealand painting, matched only, perhaps, by McCahon’s Northland Panels. His name is spreading fast, he has other dealers courting him wanting to show his work, and he’s the envy of the group of New Zealand artists living in London at the time (Ralph Hotere, Melvin Day and Don Peebles, among others). And then, seemingly just at the point of real breakthrough that every young artist dreams of, this young abstract painter and printmaker decides to move back home to the end of the Earth, settling with his wife Tanya, a well known silversmith and sculptor, in a house in Island Bay, Wellington. 

Why? Why did he move back? It was a decision that others would wonder about for the rest of this artist’s life. John Drawbridge himself, however, remained resolute. In his decisions and in his art, Drawbridge stands as a figure comfortable with the doors he has closed. It’s a kind of wisdom—something that this artist had in no short supply, as those who knew him attest, and as his work so clearly demonstrates. 

It certainly wasn’t easy in Wellington, in those days, as Rita Angus and Gordon Walters likewise knew. When in 1967 one of his wonderful geometric, textured works called Coastline, Island Bay was chosen by the New Zealand Government to be a gift to the Canadian Parliament, Drawbridge had to suffer the ignominy of a local newspaper publishing the painting and asking readers whether it looked to them like the Island Bay coastline (the implication being, of course, that abstraction was a joke because it did not represent reality faithfully). Why he didn’t get on the next ship back to London is a mystery to me. Drawbridge stayed, however, to New Zealanders’ collective benefit. And to thank him, we—with a few critical exceptions—forgot about him in favour of those artists who were Kiwis through-and-through. Artists were encouraged to go for their “OE”, as Gordon Walters did in 1950, and as Angus and McCahon did in 1958. But the imperative was always that whatever they did, they mustn’t have too much success over there, or get too directly influenced by those tricksy modern tendencies. And if they did? Well, they’d be better off staying in London, like Frances Hodgkins did. Then we’d claim them as ours after they were dead, as if  we’d been their greatest supporters all along. (The Canadians, by the way, loved Coastline, Island Bay so much that they asked for another of Drawbridge’s works).

It’s not that Drawbridge was neglected entirely, but he was placed, after his return to Wellington, in what one of his friends from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London called the “artistic wilderness”. He was there because of a few choices he had made. First, he lived in Wellington—a fact that made him practically invisible to this country’s art market, which operates primarily in Auckland. Second, in addition to his painting, Drawbridge was a lifelong printmaker, specialising in the mezzotint method (a process that, when practised as well as Drawbridge did it, produces stunning contrasts of light and dark, and a richness in colour not possible with other methods). What in retrospect seems a complement to his painting practise was not seen so at the time: printmaking of all kinds is to the art market a distant cousin to painting itself, a method good for making a quick buck and popularising an artist’s work, but not at all “serious”. Drawbridge was always more than just a painter, and printmaking was an essential part of his practise—for it, he was outcast. And third, again in the words of Drawbridge’s friend Robert Macdonald, who wrote his obituary in The Guardian in 2005: “His (Drawbridge’s) paintings were poetic and concerned with colour and the often subtle effects of light. They were very unlike the darkly brooding effusions of his more famous contemporary, the Auckland-based painter Colin McCahon, and so did not fit neatly into curatorial ideas of what New Zealand painting should look like. They were a bit too international in spirit and perhaps a bit too joyful.”

Joyous and international in spirit—these are the defining characteristics of Drawbridge’s work, the features that were irrepressible during his devoted fifty-year career. To see his 1963 New Zealand House mural in the twenty-first century is almost to rediscover New Zealand. No more brooding, no more melancholy, no more Manuka in bloom breeding despair. No more muddy hues, faux-“primitivism” or local landscapes. Instead: light, and energy, and dynamism, and colour, and seasons, and all the loveliness of the spirit of this country that “all too often goes unnoticed”, as the writer John Mulgan so long ago opined. At far left, a bright, burning orb of light sets the stage, while at far right, the deepest blues and greys of last light dominate—between these extremes, swirling, combed forms stretch across and move around the canvas. In places the colour and light are as soft and melancholy as Fra Angelico’s are at the Convent of San Marco in Florence; in other places, like just to the right of the centre panel, the blocks of colours are so rich, intense and geometricised that one thinks of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Compositions of the mid 1910s. Seeing the painting in person for the first time at Wellington’s City Gallery I was left laughing out loud—laughing, because why could I not see this country this way before, and laughing, because how could such a monumental painter be so unregarded? I felt, seeing this mural, that I could conquer the world from Island Bay; and I still feel that way even just conjuring its combed forms and regal colours in my mind.

In the mural, which hung for many years in the foyer to New Zealand House in London before being repatriated, Drawbridge captured New Zealand. It is not a landscape, or a seascape, or a skyscape, or a cityscape, but rather all of those, at once. It is not sunrise or midday or sunset, but expresses all of those times of day—at once. There is no recognisable place. It is not New Zealand seen from the top of a hill, but New Zealand seen from thirty-six-thousand-feet above, or half a world away. “My intention is to convey a sense of the patterns of the movement of light over water and land”, Drawbridge wrote upon the painting’s completion: “There is the continuous flow of a kind of cross-section of the New Zealand landscape.” Never before, and never since, has a New Zealand artist tried to capture so incorporeal a sense of this country, and nor have they done so from the distance of London. (Not that we should be surprised. For does any country ever learn as much about itself as from its expatriates?) This is not provincial NZ art, a nice advertising project for New Zealand House. This is art of the very best kind, grand but never touching on grandiosity.

John Drawbridge Window Frank and Lyn Corner Wellington
John Drawbridge. Window, 1972. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Wellington. Copyright John Drawbridge Estate.

And there, somewhere between the borders of New Zealand and the porousness of international artistic styles, is where Drawbridge’s work most often resides. This country is never dealt with recognisably, naturalistically; instead we read it into the work through the artist’s biography, the work’s title and the constant play of ocean, earth and light. Window of 1972 is a large canvas, over two metres high, where we look out—as if through a window or door frame—on pure colour. It is a seascape, but one glimpsed perhaps through bush or forest at a time of day when the sun is just low enough to shine directly into your eyes so that all  you see are masses of colour. It is indeed a joyous work—one international in spirit, but to a New Zealander feeling rooted in a time and place.

At other times, particularly in later years, Drawbridge seemed to delve deeper than ever into art history. He engages directly and unashamedly with the art of all periods, proving—and therefore opening the door to other artists in this country—that you did not need to be in Italy, the Netherlands or Russia (for example) to engage with the best art to have been created in those places. I think of his 1984 watercolour Vermeer, Rembrandt and Malevich, where these artists’ works come together in an interior-like setting: viewed through a doorway we see Malevich’s Suprematist compositions hanging on a wall, with abstracted figures from Vermeer seated before them—and to the right, in a different space (and actually on a piece of card then pasted to the watercolour), hangs one of Drawbridge’s own prints from the year before of a detail from Rembrandt’s Night Watch. This is a secularist’s sacra  conversazione, a kind of holy conversation between artists from different times and places. Vermeer’s intense naturalism meets—and enjoys meeting—Malevich’s pure, tensile abstractions from over three hundred years later.

John Drawbridge Rembrandt Malevich Vermeer
John Drawbridge. Vermeer, Rembrandt, Malevich, 1984. Watercolour on card and paper. Private collection, Wellington. Copyright John Drawbridge Estate.

The work has a greater meaning to me: it is the first artwork I ever consciously knew. Hanging always on my parents’ living room wall, I remember looking into this interior space and wondering about the artworks and the colours and the lives of the figures depicted. Long before I knew Vermeer, Rembrandt or Malevich—long before I was consciously interested in art—John Drawbridge taught me, a child in Wellington, New Zealand, about the limitless depths and the irrelevance of geography to the great artistic conversation.

John Drawbridge was not forgotten by the London art world, with his obituary written after his death in 2005 in most major British papers; but he never again was part of it. And so why, again, did he leave England, on the cusp of the success that most artists spend their lives hoping for? He left because he was wise. Because, unmoved by the vagaries of the art market and instead prompted only by the purity and sincerity of that great artistic conversation, he knew he could more deeply undertake his work from the house in Island Bay overlooking the Cook Strait than from a flat in central London. In that task he remained irrepressible, painting, printmaking, mural-making and teaching right up until his death. His artwork stands, powerful and with so much more to be discovered, as one of the best reminders in this country of why the art market is often the worst guide of all to finding the most important and powerful art. For those with eyes of their own, able to look at art without a dealer in their ear or an auction catalogue before them, John Drawbridge has so much to give.