The Oakland Public Library Puts Online a Collection of Items Forgotten in Library Books: Love Notes, Doodles & More

Librarians are champions of organization, and among its best practitioners.

Books are shelved according to the Dewey Decimal system.

Categories are assigned using Library of Congress Rule Interpretations, Library of Congress Subject Headings, and Library of Congress Classification.

And Sharon McKellar, the Teen Services Department Head at the Oakland Public Library, collects ephemera she and other staffers find in books returned to the OPL’s 18 locations.

It’s an impulse many share. 

Eventually, she began scanning them to share on her employer’s website, inspired by Found Magazine, a crowdsourced collection of found letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, handwritten poems, doodles, dirty pictures, etc.

As Found’s creators, Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner, write on the magazine’s website:

We certainly didn’t invent the idea of found stuff being cool. Every time we visit our friends in other towns, someone’s always got some kind of unbelievable discovered note or photo on their fridge. We decided to make a bunch of projects so that everyone can check out all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things people have picked up and passed our way.

McKellar told NPR that her project “lets us be a little bit nosy. In a very anonymous way, it’s like reading people’s secret diaries a little bit but without knowing who they are.”

The finds, which she stores in a box under her desk prior to scanning and posting, are pushing 600, with more arriving all the time.

Searchable categories include notes, creative writing, art, and photos.

One artifact, the scatological one-of-a-kind zine Mr Men #48, excerpted above, spans four categories, including kids, a highly fertile source of both humor and heartbreak.

There’s a distinctly different vibe to the items that children forge for themselves or each other, as opposed to work created for school, or as presents for the adults in their lives.

McKellar admits to having a sweet spot for their inadvertent contributions, which comprise the bulk of the collection.

She also catalogues the throwaway flyers, ticket stubs and lists that adult readers use to mark their place in a book, but when it comes to placeholders with more obvious potential for sentimental value, she finds herself wondering if a library patron has accidentally lost track of a precious object:

Does the person miss that item? Do they regret having lost it or were they careless with it because they actually didn’t share those deep and profound feelings with the person who wrote [it]?

Actual bookmarks are not exempt…

Future plans include a possible writing contest for short stories inspired by items in the collection.

Browse the Found in a Library Book collection here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How a Simple, Bauhaus-Designed Chair Ended Up Everywhere Over the Past 100 Years

If you don’t believe chairs can be art, you’ll have to take it up with the curators, gallerists, collectors, architects, and designers around the world who spend their lives obsessing over chair design. Every major museum has a furniture collection, and every collection displaying furniture gives special pride of place to the radical innovations of modernist chairs, from early artisan creations of the Bauhaus to mass-produced mid-century chairs of legend. Chairs are status symbols, art objects, and physical manifestations of leisure, power, and repose.

Who could forget Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic lounge chair, Arne Jacobsen’s “Egg,” the elegantly simple side chairs of Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, or even the more recent corner office staple, the Aeron Chair — the Herman Miller original that has been part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection since 1992? “In chairs more than in any other object, human beings are the unit of measure,” says Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli, “and designers are forced to walk a line between standardization and personalization.”

Artist Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus designer, architect, and instructor, applied more than his share of innovative ideas to a series of chairs and tables designed and built in the 1920s and 30s. The most iconic of these, from a design perspective, may be the “Wassily,” a club chair-shaped contraption made of steel tubing and canvas straps. (The chair acquired the name because Breuer’s Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky so admired it.) One rarely encounters this chair outside the environs of upscale furniture galleries and the finer homes and waiting rooms.

Breuer’s Cesca, however, the Wassily’s smaller, more utilitarian cousin from 1928, seems to show up all over the place. Also called the B32 (with an armchair version called the B64), the Cesca’s one-piece, steel tube design was, like Breuer’s full line of Bauhaus furniture, inspired by his experiments in bike-building and interest in “mass production and standardization,” he said. Unlike the Wassily, which might set you back around $3,300 for a quality reproduction, a Cesca comes in at around 1/10th the price, and seems ubiquitous, the Vox video above points out.

No, it’s still not cheap, but Breuer’s rattan chair design is widely beloved and copied. “The cantilevered cane-and-chrome chair is all over the place,” Vox writes, “in trendy homes, in movies and on TV shows, even tattooed on people’s bodies…. [This] somewhat unassuming two-legged chair is the realization of a manifesto’s worth of utopian ideals about design and functionality.” It satisfies the school’s brief, that is to say, for the utilitarian as utopian, as Breuer himself later commented on his design:

I already had the concept of spanning the seat with fabric in tension as a substitute for thick upholstery. I also wanted a frame that would be resilient and elastic [as well as] achieve transparency of forms to attain both visual and physical lightness…. I considered such polished and curved lines not only symbolic of our modern technology, but actually technology itself.

Learn more about the practical, comfortable, beauty of the Cesca — and the ideals of the Bauhaus — in the video at the top. Learn more about the chair’s designer, Marcel Breuer, in this online MoMA monograph by Christopher Wilk.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Does a $275,000 Classical Guitar Sound Like?

The highest quality classical guitars handmade in the 21st century can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. This is no frivolous expense for a professional player. Put such an instrument in the hands of an amateur and you may not hear much difference between it and a $150 factory-made budget model. In the hands of a seasoned player, a high-end guitar truly sings. Tone resides in the fingers — or 90% of it anyway — but a skilled guitarist knows how to discover and make use of all an instrument’s best qualities. For a musician who makes a living doing so, spending the cost of a car on a guitar makes economic sense (as does a good insurance policy).

The tonal qualities of the instrument below, a handmade classical guitar from 1888, are clearly abundant; it’s also clear that guitarist Brandon Acker — who has appeared in many of our previous posts on the guitar — knows how to exploit them. At times, he brings out such rich resonance, the instrument sounds like a piano; at others, it is almost harp-like. We have a confluence of rarity: a highly skilled player with deep knowledge of classical stringed instruments, and an instrument like no other — so rare, in fact, that it’s valued at over a quarter of a million dollars, roughly the average cost of a moderately-priced house in the U.S., the largest investment most people make in their lifetime.

To understand why the instrument carries such a high price tag, see Acker and YouTuber and guitarist Rob Scallon visit with father-and-son luthier team R.E. and M.E. Bruné at their shops in Illinois in the video at the top. The Brunés are specialists in classical and flamenco guitars. (The elder Bruné tells a charming story of making his first flamenco guitar for himself from his parents’ first dining room table.) In their shop’s storage area, they have ready access to some of the rarest guitars in the world, and they give us a lively tour — starting with a “bit of a letdown,” the “low-end,” 1967 Daniel Friederich concert model valued at $50,000.

In Acker’s hands, each guitar delivers the full potential of its sustain and resonance. Finally, at 16:00, we come to the 1888 Antonio de Torres guitar valued at $275,000. There are many older guitars in existence, even guitars made by Antonio Stradivari and his heirs. But it was this guitar, or one of the few others made by the legendary Torres around the same time, that revolutionized what a guitar looked and sounded like. When Andrés Segovia arrived on stages playing his Torres, the Brunés tell us, guitarists around the world decided that the old style, small-bodied guitars in use for centuries were obsolete.

There are perhaps 90 to 100 of the Torres classical guitars in existence, and this extravagantly-priced number 124 is “as close as you’re going to get to original,” says the elder Bruné, while his son makes the fascinating observation, “older instruments that have been played a lot, especially by great players… learn the music.” Acker expresses his surprise at the “sweetness” of the very touch of the guitar.

If you had attended the 2016 Guitar Foundation of America conference in Denver, where M.E. Bruné exhibited several of his shop’s rare guitars, you would have been able to play the Torres yourself — or even purchase it for the lesser price of $235,000.

In the video interview above from the GFA conference, M.E. Bruné describes the year plus-long restoration process on the guitar, one that involved some disassembly, extra bracing, and a replacement fingerboard, but preserved the beautiful spruce and birdseye maple of the guitar, wood that “doesn’t grow on trees like this anywhere” these days, says Bruné. It is, he says, “the best-sounding Torres” he’s ever heard. Coming from someone who has heard, and restored, the sweetest-sounding guitars in existence, that’s saying a lot. $275,000 worth? Maybe. Or maybe it’s impossibly arbitrary to put any price on such an artifact.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Olivia Newton-John (RIP) Reunites with Grease Co-Star John Travolta to Sing “You’re The One That I Want” (2002)

American nostalgia as we know it was invented in the nineteen-seventies. Consider that decade’s preponderance of backward-looking pop-cultural phenomena: Sha Na Na; Happy Days; “Yesterday Once More”; American Graffiti, whose tagline asked “Where were you in ’62?”, a time just eleven years before the release of the picture itself. But no piece of work stands more iconically for the seventies revival of the late fifties and early sixties than Grease. First produced as a stage musical in Chicago in 1971, it graduated to Broadway the next year. But Grease wouldn’t take its most enduring form until 1978, the year that brought Randal Kleiser’s film adaptation starring John Travolta and the late Olivia Newton-John.

A 28-year-old Australian might have seemed an unconventional choice for the part of Sandy Dombrowski, the new girl at midwestern Rydell High School. But after the alteration of a few details in the character and story, she made the role entirely her own. “It was Newton-John’s dulcet intimacy as a singer that set her up perfectly to play the naïve Sandy onscreen,” writes the New Yorker‘s Rachel Syme.

Her “squeaky prudishness and moony innocence as she wails ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You‘ stands in such sharp, silly contrast to her vampy fallen-woman persona at the end of the film that the whole thing feels like a camp commentary on the power of costuming and collective fantasy (not to mention a good perm).”

It didn’t hurt that Newton-John was already established as a singer: she’d represented the United Kingdom in 1974’s Eurovision Song Contest (losing, ultimately, to ABBA), and that very same year scored country hits in the United States. Her skills did much not just to make the Grease soundtrack America’s second-best-selling album of 1978 (second to the soundtrack of Travolta’s own vehicle Saturday Night Fever), but to keep it enduringly popular throughout the decades since. At Grease‘s 2002 DVD release party, Newton-John and Travolta reunited onstage to sing “You’re the One That I Want,” much to the delight of the audience — all of whom must still remember where they were in ’02, at least for those three minutes.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

All the Music Played on MTV’s 120 Minutes: A 2,500-Video Youtube Playlist

The mid-nineteen-nineties was not a time without irony. You may recall that, back then, “alternative” rock had not only gone mainstream, but, in certain regions, had even become the most popular genre of music on the radio. That was certainly true in the Seattle area, where I grew up. And if you wanted to start a rock band there, as writer Adam Cadre remembers, you knew what steps you had to take: “get a record deal, make a video, get it on 120 Minutes, have it become a Buzz Clip, wonder why massive success doesn’t ease the aching void inside.”

If you got into bands like 10,000 Maniacs, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., The Replacements, the Pixies, the Offspring, or Sonic Youth in the mid-nineties (to say nothing of a certain trio called Nirvana), chances are — statistically speaking, at least — that you first saw them on 120 Minutes.

At the peak of its popularity on MTV, the show defined the alternative-rock zeitgeist, introducing new bands as well as bringing new waves of listeners to existing ones. Though most strongly associated with the nineties, it premiered in 1986, hosted by three of the first MTV VJs, J. J. Jackson, Martha Quinn, and Alan Hunter. 36 years later, you can relive the entirety of 120 Minutes‘ seventeen-year run (with a brief revival in the twenty-tens) on Youtube.

A user named Chris Reynolds has created a playlist that appears to contain every song ever aired on 120 Minutes. (Those have been documented by The 120 Minutes Archive, previously featured here on Open Culture.) Among the playlist’s more than 2,500 videos are songs — Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off,” The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” Fishbone’s “Everyday Sunshine,” R.E.M.’s “Stand” — that will take you back to the pop-cultural eras 120 Minutes spanned. But there are even more — Manufacture’s “As the End Draws Near,” Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ “Jennifer She Said,” Helmet’s “Milquetoast,” Cause and Effect’s “You Think You Know Her” — that you may well have missed, even if you rocked your way through the eighties and nineties.

via Brooklyn Vegan

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Discover The Key of Hell, an Illustrated 18th-Century Guide to Black Magic (1775)

According to the Book of Revelation, the returning Christ arrives surrounded by seven candlesticks. In its author’s prophetic dream, “his head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.” From his mouth issues “a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” It’s a startling image, created for symbolic purposes. Without a key to what those symbols mean, the text remains obscure. It is, after all, a vision given to a mystic hermit exiled on an island.

Many a Revelation-inspired magical grimoire from succeeding centuries also remains nearly incomprehensible to non-adepts. Such is the case with the “strange 18th-century manuscript called Clavis Inferni (key of hell),” as Benjamin Breen writes at Slate. “Filled with invocations, cryptic sigils, and paintings of supernatural beings” — such as the illustration from Revelation above — “the book defies interpretation — as it was meant to do.” Also, like Revelation, the text’s authorship is mysterious, and yet significant to our understanding of its intent.

The Key of Hell is attributed to a Cyprianus, a name that “probably refers to St. Cyprian of Antioch (d. 304 CE),” Breen writes in a post at Atlas Obscura, “a very common apocryphal attribution for medieval magical texts, since Cyprian was reputed to have been a powerful magician and demon-summoner before converting to Christianity.” The use of pseudoepigraphy — an author assuming the name of a long-dead figure — was common practice throughout the history of both theological and alchemical writing. Rather than an attempt at deception, it could signal the continuation of a tradition of occult knowledge.

The title page of the Key of Hell “seems to date it to 1717,” writes Breen, but a Sotheby’s catalogue entry claims, “the script seems to be of the late 18th century” and dates it to 1775. At the Wellcome Library — who host the text online in its entirety — we find this “Harry Potter-esque” origin story:

Also known as the Black Book, [the Key of Hell] is the textbook of the Black School at Wittenberg, the book from which a witch or sorcerer gets his spells. The Black School at Wittenberg was purportedly a place in Germany where one went to learn the black arts.

Written in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and “the Magical Alphabet devised by occultist Cornelius Agrippa in his Third Book of Occult Philosophy from 1510,” notes Flashbak, the manuscript is “filled with invocations to spirits and demons — including a Hebrew invocation for summoning God.” (It also includes helpful instructions for banishing summoned spirits.) The manuscript’s full Latin title — Clavis Inferni sive magic alba et nigra approbata Metatrona — translates to “The Key of Hell with white and black magic approved by Metatron,” an archangel in the Talmudic and Kabbalist traditions. The use of this name suggests the spells within come from a higher authority.

Breen, however, found some unusual commentary on the book’s possible author, including the idea in Denmark that Cyprianus was “a fellow Dane so evil during his lifetime that when he died the devil threw him out of Hell,” writes professor of Norwegian literature Kathleen Stokker. Cyprianus was so enraged by this treatment that “he dedicated himself to writing the nine Books of Black Arts that underlie all subsequent Scandinavian black books.” Another apocryphal story identifies Cyprianus as a “ravishingly beautiful” Mexican nun from 1351 (?!) who met a “gory” end.

Whoever wrote the Key of Hell, and for whatever reason, they left behind a fascinating book of sorcery full of curious illustrations and a cryptic cosmology. See Breen’s attempts to decipher some of its key symbols here and make your own with the full text at the Wellcome Library.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How German Artist John Heartfield Pioneered the Use of Art as a Political Weapon, and Took on Hitler

The story of artist John Heartfield — born Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld in Berlin in 1891 — begins like a German fairy tale. In 1899, his parents, ill and poverty-stricken, abandoned Helmut and his three siblings in a mountain cabin at Aigen, near Salzburg. The hungry children were discovered four days later by the mayor of the town and his wife, who took them in and fostered them. Meanwhile, their uncle, a lawyer, appeared with a trust from their wealthy grandfather’s estate to fund their educations.

Helmut trained at several art schools in Germany, eventually arriving at the School of Arts and Crafts in the bohemian Berlin of the 1910s, where he abandoned his dream of becoming a painter and instead invented hugely effective anti-war propaganda art during World War I and the rise of the Nazis. As The Canvas video above explains, Heartfield’s work pointedly encapsulates the “anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist” attitudes of radical Berlin Dadaists. He was “one of Hitler’s most creative critics.”

Herzfeld began his anti-war art campaign by anglicizing his name to counter rising anti-British sentiment at the start of World War I. As John Heartfield, he collaborated with his brother, Weiland, and satirical artist George Grosz on the leftist journal New Youth and the revolutionary publishing house, Malik Verlag. After the war, they joined the German Communist party. (Heartfield “received his party book,” writes Sybille Fuchs, “from KPD leader Rosa Luxemburg herself.”); they also became “founding members of the Berlin Dadaists,” developing the photomontage style Heartfield used throughout his graphic design career.

John Heartfield, War and Corpses, the Last Hope of the Rich

“Photomontage allowed Heartfield to create loaded and politically contentious images,” the Getty writes. “To compose his works, he chose recognizable press photographs of politicians or events from the mainstream illustrated press…. Heartfield’s strongest work used variations of scale and stark juxtapositions to activate his already gruesome photo-fragments. The result could have a frightening visual impact.” They also had widespread influence, becoming an almost standard style of radical protest art throughout Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

On rare occasions, Heartfield included photographs of himself, as in the self-portrait below with scissors clipping the head of the Berlin police commissioner; or he used his own photography, as in an unglamorous shot a young pregnant woman behind whose head Heartfield places what appears to be the body of a dead young man. The 1930 work protested Weimar’s anti-abortion laws with the title “Forced Supplier of Human Material Take Courage! The State Needs Unemployed People and Soldiers!”

John Heartfield, Self-Portrait with the Police Commissioner Zörgiebel

Heartfield’s direct attacks on state power were allied with his support for worker movements. “In 1929, following ten years of activity in photomontage and publishing,” The Art Institute of Chicago writes, “John Heartfield began working for the left-wing periodical Worker’s Illustrated Magazine (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung [AIZ]).” This weekly publication “served from the first as a major organ of opposition to the rising National Socialist Party.” Heartfield’s provocative covers mocked Hitler and portrayed the power of organized labor against the fascist threat. He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1931 under the magazine’s auspices and gave photomontage courses to the Red Army. His style spread internationally until the lifeless propaganda painting of Socialist Realism purged modernist art from the party style.

Unfortunately for Heartfield, and for Europe, the German left failed to present a unified front against Nazism as the KPD also became increasingly dogmatic and Stalinist. The artist and the editors of the AIZ were forced to flee to Prague when Hitler took power in 1933. (Heartfield reportedly escaped a “gang of Nazi thugs,” writes Fuchs, by leaping from his balcony in Berlin). In Czechoslovakia, he continued his counter-propaganda campaign against Hitler through the covers of the AIZ. When the Nazis occupied Prague in 1938, he fled again, to London but never stopped working through the war. He would eventually return to Berlin in the early 1950s and take up a career as a professor of literature.

Heartfield is a complicated figure — an overlooked yet key member of the German avant garde who, with his brother Weiland and artists like George Grosz revolutionized the media of photography, typography, and printing in order to virulently oppose war, oppression, and Nazism, despite the dangers to their livelihoods and lives. You can learn more about the artist’s life and work at the Official John Heartfield Exhibition site, which features many of the collages shown in the Canvas video at the top. (See especially the feature on Heartfield’s relevance to our current moment.) Also, don’t miss this interactive online exhibition from the Akademie Der Künste in Berlin, which controls the artist’s estate and has put a number of rare photos and documents online.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Photo That Triggered China’s Disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966)

In 1958, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward. Eight years later, he announced the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Between those two events, of course, came the Great Chinese Famine, and historians now view all three as being “great” in the same pejorative sense. Though Chairman Mao may not have understood the probable consequences of policies like agricultural collectivization and ideological purification, he did understand the importance of his own image in selling those policies to the Chinese people: hence the famous 1966 photo of him swimming across the Yangtze River.

By that point, “the Chinese leader who had led a peasant army to victory in the Chinese Civil War and established the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949 was getting old.” So says Coleman Lowndes in the Vox Darkroom video above. Worse, Mao’s Great Leap Forward had clearly proven calamitous. The Chairman “needed to find a way to seal his legacy as the face of Chinese communism and a new revolution to lead.” And so he repeated one of his earlier feats, the swim across the Yangtze he’d taken in 1956. Spread far and wide by state media, the shot of Mao in the river taken by his personal photographer illustrated reports that he’d swum fifteen kilometers in a bit over an hour.

This meant “the 72-year-old would have shattered world speed records,” a claim all in a day’s work for propagandists in a dictatorship. But those who saw photograph wouldn’t have forgotten what happened the last time he took such a well-publicized dip in the Yangtze. “Experts feared that Mao was on the verge of kicking off another disastrous period of turmoil in China. They were right.” The already-declared Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, now widely known as the Cultural Revolution, saw millions of Chinese youth — ostensibly radicalized by the image of their beloved leader in the flesh — organize into “the fanatical Red Guards,” a paramilitary force bent on extirpating, by any means necessary, the “four olds”: old culture, old ideology, old customs, and old traditions.

As with most attempts to usher in a Year Zero, Mao’s final revolution wasted little time becoming an engine of chaos. Only his death ended “a decade of destruction that had elevated the leader to god-like levels and resulted in over one million people dead.” The Chinese Communist’s Party has subsequently condemned the Cultural Revolution but not the Chairman himself, and indeed his swim remains an object of yearly commemoration. “Had Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal,” once said CCP official Chen Yun. “Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man but flawed. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?” Perhaps that, had the aging Mao drowned in the Yangtze, Chinese history might have taken a happier turn.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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