There’s a particular book I’ve read eight times now – and, as of yesterday’s lunch break downtown, I’m reading it again. This sounds unbelievably boring, even to me, but I can’t help it; this particular book, a novel, which I’ll call ***, in both an evasion and a clue, just haunts me. In fact, I’m sure I’ll read it a tenth time someday – but, then, some people have seen Titanic twenty-five times, and other people have never even read one novel, let alone one novel every few years, so it is what it is, because it worked out that way.
In any case, I first read this book way back in middle school – and there is a point to all this, so bear with me. I then re-read it, borrowing it from a friend out of sheer desperation for anything published in English, living abroad for the first time about ten years ago – and I was genuinely stunned to find that the book said literally the exact opposite of what I’d remembered it saying. It was like being confronted with a distorting mirror, or an old set of photographs – a very visceral, even embarrassing, way of realizing how much a person might change. Given time, how different are your sources of significance. For good or for bad. On top of that, of course, I found I really liked the book.
So I read it again a few years later – and, because I was traveling again with nothing else to read, a few days after finishing it I started back on page one.
And so on. If anything, it’s like a form of happenstance that became a behavior.
Now it’s March 2008 and I bought a new copy of the same book yesterday on a whim from a bookstore near my office – and, being a person who underlines things, I found myself last night underlining totally different passages, little sentences here and there that had never struck me as even remotely interesting before, or meaningful, or really anything more than neutrally descriptive.
It occurred to me, then, that everyone should pick a book – a novel, a work of theory, poetry, biography, whatever – and re-read it every few years, but they should do this for the rest of their lives. It becomes an indirect kind of literary self-measurement: understanding where you are in life based upon how you react to a certain text.
So it’s not some weird sign of obsession, then, or awkward proof that you’ve been caught in a nostalgic rut. It’s more like running a marathon every few years: the same distance covered, huffing and puffing at a different age.
How do you measure up?
And how does it measure up to you?
[Image: Via Old UK Photos].
Of course, I realized, that’s why some people read the Bible over and over again, or even the Koran: it’s less a form of worship, or a sign of spiritual neediness, than a kind of literary way of marking your height in the same old doorsill, seeing how high you now stand. You are, so to speak, being measured.
But why should we only do these sorts of thing by reading books?
Why not measure ourselves, and our movement in life, against a piece of architecture?
The idea here is that you’d pick a building somewhere in the world, something outside your normal sphere of experience, and you’d visit it every few years. You were there as a kid – or as a teenager, or as a young man or woman – and you were terrified by the unlit marble stairways… but that view from the third floor is just astonishing. The Musée d’Orsay, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Westminster Abbey, or the Pantheon, or the Pyramids. The Temple of Heaven. Angkor Wat. The docks of Rotterdam.
You show up; you’ve set the whole day aside, like going to see a very long film. Or running a marathon. And you proceed to ride the elevators and escalators. You sit down at certain windows. You stand there in the corner just looking around. You go into rooms you once knew.
Maybe it’s an old hotel or hostel you’ve stayed in; maybe it’s an entire town, or a hospital you basically lived in for three weeks because someone in your family was sick. Maybe it’s your best friend’s house.
It doesn’t matter.
You drink some coffee, or you cross your arms, or you walk back and forth for an hour, paying attention to things you never would have noticed had you not come back.
You take notes, and you compare them to last time. Maybe it’s a train station in New York. Maybe it’s an airport. Maybe it’s an old garden outside the city that no one visits. Every time you’re there, you’re different.
As a kid you liked it because it made you feel lost; now you hate it because it makes you claustrophobic.
Come back in ten years, and that landscape of routes and perimeters is exactly what you need again: it’s expensive and confusing and not even well-designed – but it’s much-needed proof that you can always disappear. You’re there for hours.
[Image: Via Old UK Photos].
Or maybe it’s a hiking path out in the woods somewhere, or the Appalachian Trail, or a ruined cathedral. A whole neighborhood or district of the city.
You’re standing inside the Colosseum in Rome, and you can build whole new chains of significance and reason now, plugging in variables, making room for things beneath the outward armor of age – and it’s all because you came back, to see or feel how things might be different for you in reaction to something you’re not.
It’s like taking an exam every few years – only the exam is a piece of architecture, and the questions change every time you answer them.
In any case, is there an architecture of self-measurement? Is there a way to time ourselves across whole lifetimes through buildings? Is that what religious pilgrimages have always been about? And is that what architecture critics should be forced to do?
Or is this nothing but distracting nostalgia?
Could you somehow test yourself against the built environment, regularly, over the course of a lifetime, and do so deliberately, with purpose, the way people once wrote philosophy or read poems or traveled the world?
You enter the building.
You notice something new.
[Image: Temple at Angkor, photographed by flydime].
Is the experience of architecture ever an accurate form of self-assessment – assuming there’s a real self to assess? Or is all of this just useless melancholy, looking back through a haze of sentimental desperation for anything with significance – and attempting, unsuccessfully, to alight upon the gates of architecture?
Or might the regular re-experience of certain buildings be a kind of emotional or intellectual marathon for the people who come back to experience them? They measure themselves through the experience of built space.