A Modern Photius: Stuart Sherman’s Amazon Book Reviews

I was leafing through the recent issue of Mousse that comprises a (SMALL) anthology of writings and interviews that have appeared in the magazine’s pages since 2006.

In a 2010 piece about the performance artist Stuart Sherman, who died from AIDS in 2001, Johnatan Berger makes reference to a series of book reviews that Sherman had written on the amazon.com under the name CRIXEN. As Berger notes, in the 2009 survey of Sherman’s works by John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins and John Matturri, the curators note how these reviews offer ‘the closest Sherman had come to an autobiography’. With this in mind, what do you make of Sherman’s review of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa?

Out of my suitcase and into my hands, out of my hands and into my suitcase, out of my suitcase and into my hands–packing and unpacking the book I never see, its pages dark with with neglect, as, suitcase in hand–right hand, left hand, left hand, right hand–I travel to other places–this place, that place, that place, this place–reading other books–right page, left page, left page, right page–along trails of neglect marked out for longing native to my sense of proper tourist-etiquette. Then one day–long, long from now, far, far from here–responding to the rasp of a hasp, I look down and see my beard helplessly locked between the jaws of my suitcase. The beard is long and growing longer, deep and deeper into the suitcase’s unknown (and therefore, perhaps, vast) interior. I unlock the suitcase–spreading its jaws apart (top jaw, bottom jaw, bottom jaw, top jaw)–reach in, rescue my bead and salvage the book, which latter, like the former, is covered with –slime? ooze? mud? No, shaving cream! Clutching the book with one hand (my right), removing my beard with the other (my left), I kick the suitcase (it moans–a sigh of regret? of longing?) and begin to read. The book’s first words cut like a razor through hair proud to be cut: “I had a farm, in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” I stop traveling, I return home–long, long from now, far, far from here.

Once I discovered Sherman’s reviews, it made me think of the ‘inventor of the book review’ Photius, the 9th century patriarch of Constantinople. Photius’ work Bibliotheca is composed of 279 (some repeated!) reviews of books that he has read. Here is how Photius begins his work:

After our appointment as ambassador to Assyria had been confirmed by the assent of the embassy and approved by the emperor, you asked to be furnished with summaries of those works which had been read and discussed during your absence. Your idea was to have something to console you for our painful separation, and at the same time to acquire some knowledge, even if vague and imperfect, of the works which you had not yet read in our company. We believe that their number is exactly 279. Accordingly, regarding the fulfilment of your request as a sacred obligation, we engaged a secretary, and set down all the summaries we could recollect. No doubt we have not been expeditious enough to satisfy your feverish eagerness and vehement desire, but still we have been quicker than might have been expected. The summaries will be arranged in the order in which our memory recalls them. Certainly, it would not be difficult, if one preferred it, to describe historical events and those dealing with different subjects under separate headings. But, considering that nothing would be gained by this, we have set them down indiscriminately as they occurred to us. If, during your study of these volumes, any of the summaries should appear to be defective or inaccurate, you must not be surprised. It is no easy matter to undertake to read each individual work, to grasp the argument, to remember and record it; but when the number of works is large, and a considerable time has elapsed since their perusal, it is extremely difficult to remember them with accuracy. As to the commonplaces met with in the course of our reading, so simple that they can hardly have escaped your notice, we have devoted less attention to them, and have purposely refrained from examining them carefully. You will be better able than ourselves to decide whether these summaries will do more than fulfil your original expectations as to their usefulness. Certainly, such records will assist you to refresh the memory of what you have read by yourself, to find more readily what you want, and further, to acquire more easily the knowledge of what has not as yet been the subject of intelligent reading on your part.

With Photius in mind, try reading Sherman’s reviews (here) as not only autobiographical, but testaments to ideas of reading and memory.

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