Carrie Mae Weems on Her Favorite Books

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Of course, then there are those that are returned to again and again, because you can’t get enough. This idea that there are only a couple of stories and they get retold again and again and again, I think is true. For many years I carried a Felix Gonzalez-Torres catalog [text by Nancy Spector, for the Guggenheim Museum] everywhere. Photo: David Paul Broda
Are there publishers whose books you covet, or authors or artists you collect? But in a larger community that denies her that right, and in a state that denies her that right. I think I do 
 it because I am searching. For me, reading is always related to work, to effort, to discovery. And Baldwin, Paul Auster, these authors are really quite special. His designs are elegant, smart, and very simple, with beautiful paper. Carrie Mae Weems in her library. 5. At first glance you might think they are telling offbeat stories, but they’re really not. It is not just for pleasure, but it is the searching out and the seeking of greater understanding of myself through what others have made. There are these passages of language that I find so amazing. The following is excerpted from   Unpacking My Library: Artists and Their Books,   a collection of interviews with contemporary artists about their personal libraries, to be published by Yale University Press in November. The wonderful thing about reading is discovering, and going back to, and reinvestigating the people you admire, or have questions about, or that interest or engage you in some way. It’s all sort of wishful thinking—I keep looking at my books and think, when am I going to read that, when is it possible?  
Jo Steffens is director of Urban Center Books and editor of Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York City.   INTERVIEWER
Regarding your recent performance-based work, you have stated, “There are only a few great stories in the world and they are repeated again and again.” How did you come to create this work? It was through this that I discovered my own self, and I think that’s what reading is. I have read Toni Morrison on my knees, just floored by her amazing ability to tap into that thing that is so difficult for most of us. WEEMS
For many years, even though I have not done 
 any theater, I was always interested in theater to one degree or another. Like everybody else I’m stumbling through the darkness, looking for the light—and for a ash, a hot minute, certain writers/books illuminate the darkness, for which I am eternally grateful. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.” Which books do you reread most often, or keep going back to. Carrie Mae Weems’s Library. *
Carrie Mae Weems’s Top Ten   Books
(for which she has listed eleven)
1. I’d find myself hugging it, holding it tightly to my chest. WEEMS
Music and books have saved my life. It’s not the path that you’re going to take—you have to take your own—but your path can certainly be informed by what has been made, what has come before you, and who has struggled through it. I fell in love with it—I took simple pleasure in opening it, letting the pages fall where they may, and reading it randomly. Carrie Mae Weems’s Library. So if we look at that contemporarily, we can extrapolate pretty easily, it’s not difficult. I go back to Beckett, to Waiting for Godot, over and over and over—it’s the thing I constantly reread, I read it several times a year. 4. Photo: David Paul Broda
I’ve gone back to Ira Glass to reread certain stories. I’ve gone to see Duchamp’s work in the Philadelphia Museum more times than I can count. I really do love that book—the way it feels and the way it carries, the ease at which you can move through it, thumb through 
 it, look at it. In the center would be a chair just for me, along with a small table for pads, pencils, and ashtrays. Or people who have managed to articulate reality for you in a way that you completely get, that you have never been able to say yourself. Are there certain books that have helped you in your 
 own work? I thought it was magnificent—what an opening, what a grand way of getting me into this headspace of yours. I was lucky enough to have him design the catalogue from my exhibition at the Guggenheim, and we have become wonderful friends. It was really through reading some early work about Brecht that I realized that I myself was actually building the story of Antigone; that I was creating a modern-day Antigone as Brecht did in his day. Who designed this? Do you collect certain books because of their beautiful design? Carrie Mae Weems’s Library. While I take great pleasure in reading, I don’t read for pleasure. One day I opened it up and I thought, This is really interesting. This would be my playroom, and every day from four to seven, I’d have tea or martinis with my closest friends. I’m too hungry, too desperate. Carrie Mae Weems’s Library. The word is a form and the shape of things. Photo: David Paul Broda
Do you read for pleasure, out of curiosity, or professionally? So this material, and the material world, is one I think we all are deeply engaged in. Photo: Anthony Rossi
Your photographic work incorporates family stories, autobiography, documentary, and other narrative forms. WEEMS
Reading is a way of searching for meaning, a way to self-discovery, a point of departure for figuring things out, or for mapping a process. Most of us have books that we will never read. Photo: Anthony Rossi
If you could design or customize your library, and there were no restrictions, is there anything you would change? Rather, in my work, text functions as a conceptual frame for creating play, counterpoint, tension and/or positioning meaning. I’ve gone back to Malcolm Gladwell many times to read the way he enters a story. And then Maria Semple—I keep going back to Where’d You Go, Bernadette—it’s so fantastic, so beautifully constructed out of emails. There’s that wonderful song by Billie Holiday, “The Same Old Story,” [sings], “It’s all fun and laughter, They lived ever after in ecstasy, The same old story but it’s new 
 to me.” I was deeply affected when I learned that indeed I had actually tapped into an old story, an ancient story. Carrie Mae Weems’s studio. WEEMS
Even though I mark in my books, I prefer beautifully printed books with cotton paper, with strong spines, good color, nice patterns—books that were made with thoughtful consideration, that aren’t too big, and can be held easily in the hand. They anchor my being, ground my existence, widen the path, feed and nourish, and the best reveal both the limits and the expanse of our humanity—they are powerful objects. From Unpacking My Library: Artists and Their Books edited by Jo Steffens and Matthias Neumann, published by Yale University Press in November 2017. 8. And there are the artists that I return to repeatedly—there’s a whole list of them, from the great classical painters to the great modernist painters. 10. So I was looking at Bertolt Brecht because I wanted to understand it, and I was thinking about theater while mounting Grace Notes [Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, a performance of music, song, text, spoken word, and video projection, premiered at the Spoleto Festival in June 2016]. WEEMS
If I could, I’d have a very large room filled with books on the floors, wall to wall and floor to ceiling. I’ve gone back to 
 Coetzee many times because in particular 
 I think Disgrace is amazing. And I suppose in some small way this idea of the surface and texture, what a page feels like when you engage with it, is also meaningful because I am a photographer, somebody who is used to working with certain kinds of textures that resonate with the quality of words and pictures in a certain kind of way. There are these themes, and Antigone has a great theme; a sister wants to bury her brother with honor, that’s all she wants to do. Tobias Woolf I think is also kind of amazing, and Cormac McCarthy is really something, his world. Which writers do you return to? Storytelling requires skills that I don’t possess. 3. What’s around me, what do I build, what do I look at, what do I touch, what do I enjoy touching—that tactile nature of reading and looking at books is as important as reading them. 6. I look into that world he has created for us that is so frightening and exceptionally extraordinary. Reproduced by permission. INTERVIEWER
Is there one book that stands out as having had a big impact on you when you first read it
Books are my playmates, my best friends, my running buddies, my partners in crime, my solace, and my occasional lover. 11. 9. What do you consider to be your role as a storyteller? CARRIE MAE WEEMS
In the past I’ve employed elements of text in and around my work, but I’m certainly not a storyteller. I’ve done projects with newsprint over the years—I love working with it, I love the color of it, that kind of yellow, so I have worked in that way, too, but I really do like certain kinds of materials, and those materials I come back to again and again. I reread the opening five or six paragraphs of Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg probably ten times. His name is Takaaki Matsumoto. They have a facility with the language that I so envy and like having close to me. I was just so stunned when I realized I had created a contemporary Antigone. 7. I think it’s really about how the story is constructed, and how they engage with us, they are built in exceptional ways, that’s how they set themselves apart. Most books are, however, one-night stands. I didn’t realize I was working on Antigone until I was reading about Brecht’s work. One rarely goes back for seconds. And how we are engaged in that, how I am engaged in that, really matters to me. So I decided about a year ago that I would spend some time reading about Brecht again. It has something to do with understanding that somebody else has been there, somebody else has charted a path. INTERVIEWER
On the subject of rereading, Vladimir Nabokov commented, “We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. On the other hand I love newsprint, so there is something about rough-and-tumble paper, a kind of throwaway paper that I also really love. 2. Duchamp is one of the great puzzles of my life. I am fascinated by the way he leads a reader into the story, the structure of his writing. Photo: David Paul Broda
Do you believe that books can have a special kind of power over us, and if so, what is it about books that have this effect?