We had sorted through a wonderful donation of mostly theological and anthropological titles, and the next order of business was to place a dollar value on each. Soon, they’d burrow into the shelves and keep warm among their peers. But I felt typically uneasy about getting started.
I felt uneasy because “pricing” is kind of a disgusting task. Not the “I stepped in something and now I can smell it” disgusting; more ethical or relational disgust, I think—coequal with the disgust that proceeds from the contemplation of a low hourly wage. An “is this really all I am worth?” disgust. Maybe the word I should be using is despair. But you get the point.
I have to believe that any sentient bookseller feels this way on a regular basis. And the larger truth, I’m afraid, is that every person on 21st century earth—regardless of their pay grade—suffers this disgust/despair by dint of living at a systematically unthinking remove from the energy that determines what something’s value is: what it costs: what “works” and what “wastes”: what lives and what dies.
So, half-wittingly coping with the unending hypertension that is capital valuation, I started in with a large, atlas-looking book—forest green, cloth-bound, absent a dust jacket—called Vanishing Amazon. Dimly convinced that I was familiar with the larger purgatorial assortment of books, I just went for something easy to reach; low-hanging fruit. The evolution sponsored by standing upright ended right there with me, reaching numbly for this book.
In the back of my mind, the title conjured vague impressions of an evangelical environmentalist, temporarily sacrificing his colonial inheritance—a White life in which needs are so instantaneously met as to vanish (like the Amazon)—on the alter of a six-figure education. After this self-effacing rite, he must humbly graduate into the priesthood of some tenured faculty, perennially possessed of the inalienable right to a renewable audience of subordinated mutes. And glossy, large-format pages.
But it was the back of my mind, not the book, that was responsible for such a dark view of literature and humanity. My projection ended, and the restorative admission of reading—holding, listening, seeing, knowing—began.
Vanishing Amazon by photographer Mirella Ricciardi was published in 1991 by Harry N Abrams, Inc. The Cold War was ending; the Gulf and Yugoslav Wars were beginning; the very first website was created.* This was thirty years ago. I was just shy of four years old, the age at which I proudly decided to remain, as if that was life’s principal task: to determine how old you were going to be and then go about being it. Turned out to be the age at which I began to realize that some decisions are at odds with the Decision that is one’s life.†
Anyhow, I found Ricciardi’s introductory statement both ambitious and apologetic, confident and self-abnegating: she seemed to be moving through a highly complex world with the sense that, at bottom, something seen through her eyes could be reproduced to such an effect that it would live more-or-less fully in the mind of others. She definitely had something to share, but she knew better than most that her sharing was contingent upon the sharing of others.
Vanishing Amazon focuses roundly on the disappearing lives—routes, rites, and bodies—of the Amazon forest’s indigenous peoples. In setting off, Ricciardi foregrounds one man in particular, Ailton Krenak, a polymath, counselor, and representative for a plurality of Amazonian tribes, and a transcendent example of hospitality. It follows (from this man’s own philosophy) that the mission of the book is no less than to extend the lives of the deeply oppressed and, in so doing, sustain life on earth at large.
What gives a photograph (let alone a book of them) the right to assume such a task? What is this power of seeing that in the digital age is reduced—by way of unhinged and powerfully addictive mimesis—to imaging? Is all this just capital investment made up purpose-like in order to wring a few more coins from the piggy banks of our stupid hopeful hearts?
Where does reading really get us?
I’m not exactly sure what I set out to say with this post, similar to the way in which I didn’t know where to begin with pricing when I reached out for Vanishing Amazon. And I still haven’t “priced” the book. But in all cases, I trace a common hope: that language—in whatever vehicle, be it grainy and bookish or shiny and computerized—always respect the higher authority of your person.
*Said first website was created by Tim Berners-Lee at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)
†decision (n.) from past-participle Latin stem of decidere “to decide, determine,” literally “to cut off,” from de “off” + caedere “to cut” (from PIE root *kae-id- “to strike”)