Monday, December 07, 2009


So what if you don’t WANT to write a best-selling novel published in Manhattan by a big-name publisher now owned by a soup conglomerate and reviewed in the major mags by smart aleck young people who ALSO want to write a best-selling novel, etc. ? THEN what advice should you heed?

Follow your heart. Include your friends. Share what you know. Go to video.

Michael and Lynda Sexson are not afraid of electronics; I think I’ve talked about their brilliant conference: “Logon ‘83.” I probably will do that again. In the quarter-century since then, they have kept all their skills -- both words and computer -- growing, so now “My Book and Heart Shall Never Part,” which they describe as a “little film about little books,” sells on as a DVD just like the earlier conventional books the Sexson’s have written. (“Ordinarily Sacred” is a key book in the field of religious studies.) “My Book and Heart Shall Never Part” is seamlessly designed, sequenced and performed, a joy to watch.

For the story of “My Book and Heart” our guide is Devita Sexson, granddaughter, so graceful and mysteriously exotic a child that we willingly follow her in and out of many facts about primers and penny books made at the dawn of both our nation and the printing industry. Meant for children, the little books are full of gruesome and fatal events with never a shrug or a PC worry. Maybe they were also treasured by adults trying to read. There are “Primers for Indians” (meaning indigenous people) with prayers sounded out in their own languages, clever propaganda. Devita’s conversion of “r” into “w” is something like the early printed “s” that appears to be “f” or maybe the usually late-forming spoken “r” is like the letter “j” which came to the alphabet last among letters.

The elder Sexsons pronounce beautifully and clearly, as professors ought to do, but we never see them. Michael and Lynda read the copy (written by Lynda) which is reflective, clarifying and sometimes subtly -- even slyly -- political. There are thoughts here for those of us on the threshold of ePrinting, but mostly this is a “show don’t tell” production. It is not at all like walking through a museum of primers under glass. At one point a ferocious little terrier actually tears to pieces what appears to be one of those shabby fragile little booklets, oh, dear! But it leaves intact the words “My Book and Heart Shall Never Part!" Devita is divided between the fascination of destruction and the desire to save her penny booklet! It’s clear that this has been the fate of many of these primers, some of which describe just such dogs!

Little playlets tell vivid stories. Little Red Riding Hood is the main narrative spine -- a story MUCH enjoyed by the wolf (who would secretly prefer to slurp everyone, not eat grannies) -- but a nearly unknown tale (quite reminiscent of Cinderella) about “Goody Two-Shoes” and how she got her name both charmed and alarmed me as Devita ran through the snow half bare-footed! Oh, the brave afflictions of actresses who must perform realistically under trying conditions!

An early version of scrapbooking caught my eye. Re-using account books, rather like the famous Native American overpainting of business ledgers that Terance Guardipee has brought into our time, someones who may have been children have pasted clips of interesting images and sayings into their own creative composites. In fact, the printers themselves clearly swapped the already typeset bits from previous printings into new work, maybe as fillers but sometimes as books in themselves. An early version of vid "mashing."

But this is not a story about printers doing their jobs. This is a story about the books that go to our hearts. For my generation, it was not pop songs or television programs that gave us our first understanding of the world. It was our books, gifts from grandparents or discoveries at the library, that imprinted our hearts with a line of ducklings in traffic, increasingly elaborate hats on staircases, or little houses that grew old and shabby but were moved to the country and reborn. But not even our grannies were old enough to have owned penny booklets, the right size to slip into a pinafore pocket.

By the end of this little show, one sees the value of collections, for in aggregating these sometimes flimsy and often droll little bits that probably went into cookstoves all over America to punish children who didn’t pay attention and do their chores, there emerges finally a pattern of the 19th century and its preoccupations as it tried to understand the many emerging questions about natural history, esp. domestic and wild animals; the middle class and how it ought to rule itself for success; religion as the Protestants understood it to be set down in books; hagiographies of our early historical figures; and most of all, the keys to success, also known as prosperity. Honor, promptness, frugality, kindness. The mixture of Dear Abby, Miss Manners, Napi, Aesop, and Calvin comes in a tumbled fruitcake of image and rhyme for the consideration of the growing child (and probably the parent as well, for what child can resist instructing the parents). Far from being merely cute curiosities, these stories are a window into our recent past that lingers on in quiet corners, sometimes with good results and sometimes, alas, justifying rigidity.

The modern equivalent of printers’ primers and infant books is no longer for people just beginning to read. Once again many around the planet are illiterate to the alphabet but this time they are visual sophisticates and they are teenagers. Instead of a booklet for a pinafore pocket, they carry small screen mobile phones in their hands (always in use); and instead of puzzling over animals, which are now assumed to be like people, they consider the galaxies, their own daily survival, and the mysteries of sex. Homeless themselves, they want to save the wolves. In some ways reading these historic primers is like puzzling out hieroglyphics and we are glad to have a little advice. But in the end, we join Devita and her friends, both two-legged and four-legged, in the sheer gusto of story and juxtaposition, choosing to be surprised and delighted by print from the past. Oh, you’ll probably have chances to watch it on your iPhone.

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