Residency #1 | Reading in to connection

Welcome to The Apiary, a space that’s all yours to define.

This space is full of books. Not so full that you can’t find a cosy corner to curl up and read in, but full enough that your companions might lose you for a few hours.

This space, both its textual facet and the physical space in Wassaic, New York, is a result of a week long residency, which itself is a result of fortuitous circumstances — Chris Zumtobel and David Kurfirst, founders of Think Olio and its most recent iteration OlioHouse, were convinced that the attic could be a great space for reflection and that a learning space needs books. Bianca Winter (that’s me, hi!), one of the founding members of the Scenius, had a good number of books that it didn’t make sense to repatriate. As the conversation blossomed, so to did an idea about what kind of home might befit such a collection, acquired through recommendation, chance, nose-following, mild obsessions and whimsy. A space for the books to find new friends, breath. A living library.

No welcome to a bookish space can be complete without a run through of the rules that govern the space. Read on, because these rules are unlike those you’ve likely come across in libraries or bookstores. These rules can be better described as invitations, because there are things we’d love you to do here, but first and foremost is stake your claim to the space — at least for the moment.

Underpinning these invitations, and the organisation of the books in the space, is a distrust of the idea that you know what you want. Let’s consider this space the opposite to an algorithm parsing the metadata from books you’ve previously read and purchased: we don’t want to predict what you’ll like and assist you in keeping the blinkers firmly on. No.

Instead, we’re embracing the habits we’ve witnessed in smart and inquisitive folk. This is no strict reading room dedicated to research: this is a playpen, and the books are the toys that will increase your dexterity, exercise your visual muscles and help you be much, much better at making connections. Shall we begin?

Think Olio invite you to contribute to the making of The Apiary…

  • Make your mark: write in our ‘book of readers’. Tell us when you came, what you thought, what you’ll do/make/read/see as a result of being in the space.
  • Note forward: write a note and nestle it between the pages of a book for the next reader to find.
  • Find poetry: use the spines as lines and craft a poem from the books to give the space a lyrical voice.
  • Tell a story: write to us about one of the books in this collection that means something to you. We’ll add it to the digital record for the book.
  • Share a quote: send us a quote from one of the books and we’ll add it to our ‘book of quotes’.
  • Compile a collection: gather books together that speak to or of one another, that are greater in sum than in part, and shelve them next to each other.
  • Add a book: bring a book to swell the ranks of the collection. If it has an ISBN, we’ll enter it into the database.

The words of John Berger, an autodidact whose spirit of enquiry underpins what The Aviary is all about, helped me understand what I was aiming for in designing the space. In A Fortunate Man, Berger talks about what happens at death:

“Death changes the facts qualitatively but not quantitatively. One does not know more facts about a man because he is dead. But what one already knows hardens and becomes definite. We cannot hope for ambiguities to be clarified, we cannot hope for further change, we cannot hope for more. We are now the protagonists and have to make up our minds.”

This space started as a ‘living library’ — I was conscious that my 2000-odd books in storage in Europe were effectively dead: no-one to pick them, pick them up, pick over them. I didn’t want these books to suffer the same fate. The concept of dead books grew as the more I dwelt on it — books are for reading, after all — and the words of a colleague, upon returning from the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar rang in my ears: ‘forget the gloves, books are made to be handled’. I realised, with some shame, as I started writing the records for these books that many of them had remained stubbornly unread for months in spite of the fact that they were easy to find in my systemic shelving.

The books here are organised according to the prevailing winds of the day — and what we know about wind is that it’ll change. You will not find divisions between fiction and non-fiction, nor alphabetised order, nor categorisations — mostly, we’re interested in the liminal spaces between such distinctions anyway. But that’s not to say this place is without order — it’s just as ordered as the last people that shelved, just as labyrinthine and complex as their patterns of cognition. There’s also a digital record of the collection, so if you really must know if a particular book is at OlioHouse, you can check (the search, by the way, is very pedantic)… and then good luck finding it!

Being the first person to cross-pollinate these books (and exercising a form of liberation from my past desires for order), there are a few things I’ve put together that I invite you to look out for:

  • Bluetoo: In playful homage to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, I’ve shelved all the books with blue covers together (Bluets; And Still I Rise; Sister Outsider — these are the face outs) and I’ve included John Berger’s Permanent Red in there as the comic relief, with the express purpose of using it to introduce another paragon of misinterpretation — Dave, from Ross Sutherland’s Six Parties. 
  • The shrining: A shelf full of my tip top picks — writers and books both — which resembles more shrine than shelf. Feel free to add your own votive.
  • Spinal poetry: It was an unabashed pleasure of mine, when snaking through the stacks of online stock at a prominent non-profit bookstore, to notice ‘found’ poems — lyrical and suggestive groupings of titles blazed across spines, unsuspected couplets and de rigueur verses.

For many, the decision to give a few hundred books away is not straightforward (even if this is nominally a ‘loan’). If you have that many to begin with, chances are you care about books. The myriad motivations to regularly and consistently acquire books fascinate me, as does the gap between what we acquire and what we actually read. I know, and admire, people who go about their acquisition in a methodical way, focusing on this or that edition, caring about condition; people who, whenever the moment presents, know exactly what they are looking for. My own approach, in comparison, seems less discerning. Perhaps an argument could be made for it being more open. I’ve always had trouble stating exactly what I want, which I now reason is because I trust that the world is richer and far more glorious than the limitations of my imagination. My time in New York — three years in all, during which time this collection was amassed — has certainly fostered a growing appetite to say yes, and a mind less interested in fixing things or finding an unassailable position. I want to be assailed, affected, imbued. Mohsin Hamid talks about reading as a process of contamination”

“…the element of contamination that of course a book, any book, has upon us when we encounter it that we are no longer pure when we’ve read something. in the moment of reading itself we become unpure. there is no way for any of us to contain a text within us and remain purely ourselves.”

Through the course of the week-long residency in the attic that became The Aviary, I recorded notes about all the books that I loaned to Think Olio. For those I hadn’t read, I wrote short accounts of origin (why did I take this book home?). For those I’d started, the books tended to speak for themselves and the notes are quotes. They contaminated me, made me a mouthpiece, made me aware that I now contained them. Kamel Daoud writes enticingly thus:

“You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you, and from then on it falls into the habit of grasping things in your place, it takes over your mouth like a lover’s voracious kiss.”

What of this nod to provenance? Why was it important to record details of the where or the why? Is this not another falling into the trap of fetishising physicality? The answer is both function and sentiment. The sentiment is simple: I want to show gratitude to people for taking time to recommend books to me, for placing them in my hands. I want to indicate the particular desire that was fulfilled upon acquisition. I want to expose the chain of associations that made this decision reasonable. I want, in short, to lay bare the connections, how ever many degrees of separation, that link me and this book.

Functionally, I wasn’t ready to let go of most of these books. When first I decided that I couldn’t take them with me to a life beyond Brooklyn, I simply wanted to list them out as an aide memoir: each of this books represents a yearning for some particular knowledge or experience, a reaching toward a self slightly changed, and I didn’t want to lose those impulses, let go of those vessels, even though they hadn’t all fruited.

I firmly believe in reading as a creative act. So, while I agonise over the hundreds of tiny impulses that resulted in an acquisition but didn’t grow into a strong enough desire to turn the first page, or that ending in a stalling, I remind myself that creative processes are rarely mechanistic. So I bought hundreds more books than I read. I still read a lot. And I (almost) never read just to get through something.

The Aviary embraces the complicated mess that is a desire to read, to learn and to grow. It acknowledges that, no matter what I’m reading at the time, I’m constantly reading into the world around me, covering my eyes with lenses made of others’ words, harnessing a lack of purity — a duality — to deepen my humanity. As a space, it proudly proclaims the potency of promiscuous shelving so that we never stop seeing what is right in front of us. It takes a stance that is anti-algorithm, anti-possession, anti-circulation — one that places the communal front and centre. It is a ground for cross-pollination of ideas, sentiments, verses, perspectives and people. And it is waiting the version of you that doesn’t need to possess, that trusts in chance, that will say yes, and…

Let’s consider this space Wildean and make room for whimsy, instinct and play:

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.