Turning a Page

It was my turn to work the Saturday shift at Pat’s yesterday, and the task I set for myself was to try to bring some semblance of order to the used books in the overstuffed sausage of our storage area.

We’ve been selling some books without refilling the holes on the shelves, and if I could organize the back it would be easier to grab and go, not to mention that if a customer came in looking for books by Anne Lamott, it maybe would not take me two weeks to unearth our one title from the bottom of a box.

While I once again oversimplified the task in my mind — I’ll just get all the books in order in the back, then re-organize the sales area, in less than four hours — I did get four boxes and a table cleared out/off and into categories, most of the titles set where they can be seen at a glance and all the hardback and trade paperback fiction arranged by author, with the one Lamott book foolishly set aside for the long-gone customer.

And — this is impressive, I think — I did all this and only came home with five new used books for myself.

They are all thin books, mind you, so they won’t take up very much space, although two of them are occupying considerable real estate in my brain this morning.

After a very late, post-work lunch with Lynn, I settled in on the couch with a 1987 book, part of a series of biographies for the teen reader called “Why They Became Famous,” although I don’t think this particular effort explained that clearly at all about Ludwig van Beethoven, who was a very difficult human being with an amazing mind for music.

His father was an abusive, alcoholic singer who was determined that his three sons would be child prodigies in the music world just like Mozart, about 14 years older than oldest son Ludwig. None of them were; in fact, youngest son Johann opted to become a pharmacist, far away from the madding world of music.

Karl, whom this thin book gives very short shrift, is referred to as a “mediocre” musician while Ludwig reached that “Cher” status of just one name known the world over: Beethoven.

He grew and grew as a musician, his performances becoming stronger as he got older, but then the buzzing in his ears, marking his impending deafness, took over and drove him into composition, where he truly excelled.

His music, today considered the epitome of “classical,” was cutting edge at the time, too much even for some members of the advanced musical scene in Vienna. One attendee, unnamed in the book, seemed to take great delight in going to Beethoven’s concerts with the intent of loudly denouncing the work as he and his entourage walked out in the middle of each performance.

Others got it as it happened, though, resulting in the famous story of a completely deaf Beethoven (in violation of an agreement to sell exclusive performance rights to the London Philharmonic) badly conducting a Viennese orchestra in the debut of his Ninth Symphony, having to be turned around to take in the standing ovation he couldn’t hear any more than he could hear the musicians he was trying to lead. Even done badly it was a triumph, both for him and the world of music.

I have often, in my life, as I learn about the masters of artistry, wondered how the landscape would look had women been accorded the same privileges as men. If more women had been taught to read and write, for instance, might there have been a Wilhemina Shakespeare out there somewhere?

The answer has to be “of course,” because if we go back and look at boy genius Mozart, we look right past the sister who sat next to him at the piano in childhood. By all accounts, she was quite talented too, but I don’t believe anyone gave much thought to furthering her career.

Which brings me to the book I hardly expected to be bringing home, which is only going to enrage as it enlightens me: The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art.

In 1998, the intentionally unidentified Guerilla Girls were making it their mission to try to shift that lens through which so many of us look and which state legislatures, mostly in the South, are currently fighting so hard to keep in place, as if acknowledging contributions to the world by people not white and not male will somehow destroy the very fabric of space and time.

I like to think I am enlightened, I do, but all I had to do was open this book to the flyleaf to see how rigid I can be in my notions of the giants of history. “12th century B.C.: Phalitasia, an Egyptian woman, writes poems about the Trojan War from which Homer copies The Iliad and The Odyssey.

And, from 1723, “Dutch painter Margareta Haverman expelled from the Academie Royale when painting she submitted was judged too good to have been done by a woman.”

In college I took classes that were considered off the beaten path: women writers, folklore, the history of southern Africa. I wanted to study Swahili, listed in the course catalogue prior to my arrival on campus but sadly no longer offered once I got there. And I took a ton of courses on my main interest at the time: America west of the Mississippi River.

This was the 1980s, and it was the cusp of a revolution in that field: scholars were only just starting to realize that a treasure trove lay right under their noses, in the writings of ordinary women who had come west with more famous men. Their diaries informed a clear picture of daily life, and it seems fairly obvious now that you gain a much more rounded, full look at the region when you incorporate women, and the Spaniards who pushed north —

[The late, great columnist Ed Quillen one time detailed how one of his daughters got sent home from school with a note from the teacher because she wasn’t doing the assignment “right” and writing about Jamestown as the first white settlement in America. She wrote instead, and more accurately, about the Spaniards who occupied portions of the south and west. Ed and his wife Martha were unmoved by the teacher’s distress — probably they only added to it.]

— and the natives who were already in place before the region was “settled.”

So you’d think I would understand the narrowness of my own lens when reviewing things like the history of music and art, and that simply wondering where we would be if societies had acknowledged the other half of their population was missing what could be right under my nose.

It only takes the first actual page of the Guerilla Girls’ book to get to the crux of the matter: “The famous query by feminist artists and art historians goes, ‘Why haven’t there been more great women artists throughout history?’ The Guerilla Girls want to restate the question: ‘Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?'”

As you can see, I have my reading — and thinking — cut out for me, perhaps enough to last until I need to sort the next set of boxes in our slightly-less overstuffed sausage of a back room.

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