Books Worth Reading

July 2014

The Gorgeous Nothings: The Envelope Poems of Emily Dickinson

By |07.18.14|


For Proust,” Susan Howe writes in her Preface to The Gorgeous Nothings, “a fragment is a morsel of time in its pure state; it hovers between a present that is immediate and a past that once had been present.”

The fragments Howe is specifically referring to are the envelopes left behind by Emily Dickinson, fascinating slips of paper scrawled with the […]

January 2014

Skyscrapers: A Cure For Loneliness & Overconsumption? Judith Dupré on the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings

By |01.09.14|

Books Worth Reading
Skyscrapers: A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings
By Judith Dupré. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 176 pages

Architecture is the art form we spend the most time with in our daily lives, and yet it’s a medium that gets little media attention.

But recently, architecture had a rare moment in the sun when One World Trade Center in New […]

December 2013

Gwarlingo’s 26 Favorite Art, Photography, Film & Design Books of 2013

By |12.12.13|


As an ex-librarian and book collector, one of my favorite things to do is to ferret out new publications and share them with readers. Whenever I’m traveling, I scour local bookstores and museum shops for interesting books. (Carting heavy art tomes home on an airplane is a familiar experience.) I also keep an eye out for new titles online, in […]

Chop-Suey, Automats, & Diamondback Terrapin: Michael Lesy & Lisa Stoffer on Dining in America

By |12.01.13|

Wisconsin Death Trip
My first introduction to the work of Michael Lesy was a chance encounter many years ago with his classic photography book Wisconsin Death Trip. Flipping through the images of children in coffins and grim-faced Midwesterners, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was seeing. A straightforward document of madness, crime, disease, and urbanization in Black River Falls, Wisconsin? Or, perhaps, […]

November 2013

Writer Howard Mansfield on Clutter, Home Improvement & the Most Hated House on the Block

By |11.19.13|


“Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.” -Samuel Mockbee
The Click & Clack of Clutter

I am fascinated by how houses succeed or fail to shelter us, body and soul, ” says writer Howard Mansfield in his new book Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter (Bauhan Publishing, 2013).

“The mystery that holds my attention is that some houses have […]

A New Orleans Hospital Becomes Hell: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial

By |11.04.13|


How do we cope with a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina? Do we learn the necessary lessons and adjust accordingly, or do we simply slip back into a state of denial? How prepared are we for the next major storm?

Questions like these have been on my mind this week during my stay in New Orleans. Today I saw […]

September 2013

Daily Rituals: How Artists Create (And Avoid Creating) Their Art

By |09.25.13|


One Sunday in 2007 Mason Currey was sitting alone in the office of his employer—an architecture magazine—trying (and failing) to finish an article that was due the next day. Instead of getting down to business, he compulsively tidied his cubicle, made Nespresso shots in the kitchenette, and began searching the Internet for information about other writers’ work schedules. The looming […]

Postcards from a Prison Teacher

By |09.11.13|


2.3 million people are currently imprisoned in the United States, that’s one out of every 100 adults—more per capita than any other country in the world. (Repressive China is a distant second, with one in 1,000 adults incarcerated.)

As Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi explain in the introduction to their book Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons […]

June 2013

I Never Knew How Blue Blueness Could Be: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

By |06.12.13|



One of the joys of Gwarlingo is meeting art lovers from around the world. Sigrun Hodne and I found each other early in Gwarlingo’s short history, and though she lives in Norway, and I in New Hampshire, I’m constantly amazed by how similar our passions are when it comes to books and art. (If you aren’t familiar with her excellent arts blog Sub Rosa, I encourage you to subscribe.)

Sigrun has studied architecture in Oxford, art history and film in Stavanger, Norway, and literature in Bergen, Norway. (She wrote her Master’s thesis on “Self and Subjectivity in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy; Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable”). She has taught aesthetics in art schools and universities and has done research in language and psychosis. She currently works as an art and literature critic and is attempting to make a living as a writer (no small feat!).

There has been a strange serendipity with Sigrun across the miles. She will write about a particular artist, book, or subject at the same time I’m also investigating that specific topic.

So it was with Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets (Wave Books, 2009). I was late to the party with this one, but I quickly discovered why this slender volume is considered a literary masterpiece in certain circles (and a cult classic in others). Nelson’s meditation on the color blue, lost love, and depression is a brilliant, effective experiment that defies categorization. This is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve read, period.

When Sigrun posted about Bluets on her blog at the very moment I was also discovering Nelson’s publication, I emailed and asked if she would be willing to write a short piece about the book. What follows is her essay, and a special excerpt from Bluets.

A special thanks to Sigrun Hodne, Maggie Nelson, and Wave Books for sharing their work.



I Never Knew How Blue Blueness Could Be
by Sigrun Hodne
Lets dive in, give in, lets go where things already have gotten tricky, messy – confused, where words and meanings are bouncing off in different directions, lets have a look at fragment number fifty-one:
51. You might as well act as if objects had the colors, The Encyclopedia says. –Well, it is as you please. But what would it look like to act otherwise?
Indeed, what would it look like to act otherwise?

Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) is a bastard, a hybrid, transgressing all and every genre, as they are yet known. Partly essay, partly poetry, it’s a collection of fragments, of quotations, a memoir with a hint of philosophical investigations. Bluets won’t land in any category. But let’s, for the sake of simplicity, call it a long lyrical essay.

A long lyrical essay on the color blue—blue in a public, scientific, and historical sense, but also blue in the most personal sense.

There are several plot-lines: love, pain, friendship, and loss, to mention just a few.

This is how it all begins:
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
In art-history, color has often been understood as secondary to form, as something that “fills” the form. In Nelson’s work color take on the lead role (– just as love, the color blue is not an optional supplement, an accidental add-on).
2. And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
A book about the color blue, what a peculiar idea!
13. At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than an ash of sleeve falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
Let’s go back to where we started, repeating our initial question: “… what would it look like to act otherwise?”
53. “We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object” —this is the so-called systematic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you.
“Acting otherwise,” rejecting the systematic illusion of color is, I believe, to abandon a very central social norm: an understanding of the world as a place looking in a certain way – the same way – for each and every one of us. Systematic illusions are the basis of our impression that we share an external reality; it’s the place we meet and interconnect. Systematic illusions make us believe in a common world. ‘Acting otherwise’ is to reject common sense, renouncing the company of humans, and thereby subjecting oneself to alienation and solitude. The extreme consequence of rejecting the systematic illusions of humanity is finally ostracization, solipsism—
—falling silent.
“… But I am not willing to go there—not just yet….”



Bluets, An Excerpt
by Maggie Nelson
14. I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book
about blue without actually doing it. Mosty what happens
in such cases is that people give you stories or leads
or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead
of with words. Over the past decade I have been given
blue inks, paintings, postcards, dyes, bracelets, rocks,
precious stones, watercolors, pigments, paperweights,
goblets, and candies. I have been introduced to a man
who had one of his front teeth replaced with lapis lazuli,
solely because he loved the stone, and to another who
worships blue so devoudy that he refuses to eat blue food
and grows only blue and white flowers in his garden,
which surrounds the blue ex-cathedral in which he lives.
I have met a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo
in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s
Blue in heartbreaking drag, and another with the face of a
derelict whose eyes literally leaked blue, and I called this
one the prince of blue, which was, in fact, his name.
15. I think of these people as my blue correspondents,
whose job it is to send me blue reports from the field.


Architect Says: Less Is More. Less Is a Bore.

By |06.05.13|



Philadelphia is a city awash with memorable architecture, so it’s fitting that I stumbled across The Architect Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s store, which offers a well-curated assortment of books inside of Horace Trumbauer’s imposing Greek structure prominently situated on Fairmont Hill.

Laura Dushkes, the book’s editor, works as a librarian at NBBJ architectural firm in Seattle and began collecting quotes about architecture while purchasing, reading, and cataloging books about design for the firm. The Architect Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom is an elegant compendium of quotations from more than 100 of history’s most opinionated—and dissenting—minds.

The book offers a fascinating glimpse at the creative process. “It’s not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem,” says Jan Kaplicky. “It’s just a waste of energy.” Then there’s this quote by Charles Eames: “Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem — the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible — his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time and so forth.”

Dushkes’ layout and sequencing of quotes also highlights sharp differences of opinion in the field of design: Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” versus Robert Venturi’s response, “Less is a bore” is a good example. I also like these rifts on Louis Sullivan’s observation that “form ever follows function”: “Form follows form, not function,” says Philip Johnson or “Form follows profit.” (Richard Rogers).

Also interesting is the relationship between architecture and other creative fields. “I learn more from creative people in other disciplines than I do even from other architects because I think they have a way of looking at the world that is really important,” says Seattle-based architect and MacDowell Colony fellow Tom Kundig.

But there are differences between creative fields too, as Renzo Piano points out: “You can put down a bad book; you can avoid listening to bad music; but you cannot miss the ugly tower block opposite your house.”

(Click pages to enlarge)