In a book released this month, Quebec writer Dany Laferrière crafts a perfect image from his Haitian childhood to convey his relationship to books.
"I went to school with my sister. Together we formed a strange procession. People turned to stare as we went by. I kept my left hand on her right shoulder, and I held the book I was reading in my other hand. Like a blind man with his guide. I knew the way by heart, I'd travelled it for years; my sister was there just to keep me from getting hit by cyclists . . . I paid her dearly for her services, ten cents a trip," Laferrière writes in a section called "Ten Snapshots from a Reader's Life."
The word "snapshots" is a utterly a propos because the book in which it appears, A Book of Readers, is no mere textual encomium on the act of reading, or even on readers themselves. It is a retrospective of pictures the photographer George S. Zimbel has taken since 1952 of readers living the act of reading.
A Massachusetts native who has been a Montrealer since 1980, Zimbel is an internationally acclaimed portraitist who has counted Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Marilyn Monroe among his subjects. His work has been on gallery walls in New York, Spain, Luxembourg, Japan and, of course, Montreal.
Yet since his college days in the 1940s, Zimbel has been fascinated by the photographic possibilities of the human face captivated by books, magazines, newspapers, and the infinite variety of forms where text is placed on paper to serve the eye. As photography writer Vicki Goldberg tells us in her introductory essay, Zimbel's studies continue a genre dating back to André Kertész in 1915.
It is hard to imagine a more eclectic collection of readers and their habits than the one that Zimbel, now 82, has amassed over the years. A conventional joyful shot from 1959 of a mother reading to her children is counterbalanced by an eerie silhouette of a lone male reader at the far end of a Paris subway platform late at night. A woman in an elegant fur coat crouches to select a book from a kiosk shelf at the McGill metro in Montreal. A young sailor tucked into a bunk on a submarine in 1961 reads to immunize himself from the chaos of the shipmates around him.
The connective tissue for the images in A Book of Readers is Zimbel's gift for expressing reading as next to prayer in its absorptive power over mind and spirit. Photographs themselves are meditations on absorption. His capture and presentation of candid or "found" readers buried in words and pages has the double-down effect of moving us to contemplate from the outside moments of internal immersion so deep we would happily pay someone a dime, a dollar, or much more to protect us from harmful interruption by the world.
Two photographs from dozens leap out as examples. The first is a mid-book spread which shows a young man in a library at Yale in the 1960s literally up to his neck in books. All that is visible of him is the curve of his collar and his head as he sits amidst a pile of reading material so steep it resembles slabs of sedimentary rock about to slide out the left side of the frame. His expression is less that of someone processing information than it is of a penitent examining his conscience before seeking absolution.
Only two pages earlier there is a shot of another young Yale student from the same era, but this one is seated at a carrel next to a floor to ceiling window at the far end of some library bookshelves, which create lines of force drawing our eye toward him. His eyes are turned not to his book but the window he looks out. His body language tells us, though, that he has turned not out of boredom but surprise. His right hand is rising slightly from the table in front of him. His right heel beneath his chair has come up to almost a fight or flight posture. His head and shoulders are poised as if to say: "Oh! That's the world. That's the world?"
Comfort, critical in these days when the imminent death of the book is proclaimed at every turn, comes from the photographic certainty that he will turn back. He will go back to his reading. He will go back to the words before him, as one who has ceased to pray always somehow, some way, goes back to prayer. He is a reader. He knows the way by heart.