Reinier Gerritsen, ‘Hundred Years of Solitude,’ 2014
Glued to multiple gadgets and a perpetual news cycle, the 21st-century reader has challenged authors to write books that trump text messages. It’s no easy feat to find such a book, and then, to read it in its printed form. Fortunately, however, the New York City subway seems to be a moving library with its books intact, perhaps only because there isn’t yet WiFi onboard.
Reinier Gerritsen spent more than 10 years on subways, discreetly observing commuters and inspecting the act of reading bound books with his camera. Gerritsen’s project is displayed in his new new solo exhibition at The Julie Saul Gallery titled “The Last Book.” As the gallery notes, the Amsterdam-based photographer worked on this project as “an elegy to the end of bound books.” His photographs serve as a reminder to future generations of digital readers, who may never dog-ear their favorite passage by actually folding the corner of a page between their fingers.
In addition to their sense of urgency, Gerritsen’s pictures serve as stories of their own. Within his claustrophobic compositions, Gerritsen focuses on the juxtaposition between the identity of the reader and their chosen book. In his pigment print, Hundred Years of Solitude (2014), the colors are as bright as the details are crisp. The photographer’s keen attention invites gallery-goers to observe these book-readers as specimens, alluding to their presence in a somewhat distant history once filled with libraries and bookshops. But one reader, who is not documented in the series, poses a potential solution to the preservation of bound books.
Jewish people, known as the People of the Book, are no stranger to the importance, preservation and sanctification of the written word. Yet as Jewish practice evolves with technology, scripture has become available on multiple devices. Kiddush can be recited via smartphones and parsha stories can be taught through games on iPads. Forget People of the Book —will Jews soon become People of the iPad?
Technology unquestionably encompasses the incredibly wide range of reading material from the aforementioned religious texts to celebrity gossip; however, digital books do not provide the same reading experience as bound books. One clear example is Judaism’s holiest book, the Torah, which is read in the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. Each letter in a Torah scroll is written by hand individually with a quill on parchment. (No stylus would be sufficient for this job.) Even one mistaken or missing letter invalidates the entire Torah scroll. This signifies the importance of the written word especially in relation to its presentation for it readers. The ink-stained words of God provide a tactile experience with which readers become engulfed in their spirituality. In this way, scripture may promise to outlast digital books.
While the digital age is ever-expanding, Gerritsen’s series demonstrates that the bound books- the last which might still only be spotted on subways- should not be forgotten. Perhaps Gerritsen’s greatest statement would be to stumble upon a commuter reading his recently published book of this particular series of photographs, “The Last Book.”