I just finished reading A Book of Days, by Patti Smith, after going to see her speak at City Arts in San Francisco. Smith is just enough older than my generation’s obsessions that I didn’t start out familiar with her work, but I had the general idea that she’s a legend – and as she told stories & showed photos from the book, that idea (“legend – wait for it – ary!” plays in my head so often, it’s as if How I Met Your Mother is permanently implanted in my brain – oh well, there are worse things) only grew stronger.
Plus, I have always loved the concept of books of days. As a college student in New York, I peered in at medieval manuscrips in the Cloisters museum. On a long walk in the UK, I paced through ruined monks’ cells and contemplated lauds and vespers. More recently, I read Gemma Gorga’s Book of Minutes, translated from Catalan (Llibre dels minuts), poems based on the idea of time running quickly, scenes captured fleeting. My husband bought me a 19th century pocket planner (but it is so much more than that! it’s like the internet in your pocket, from the Victorian era) and I took my glasses off to read the miniscule, pencilled-in events written by some other woman a hundred years ago.
Smith’s Book moves too: memories, reflection, birthdays (so many birthdays!), death days, travel. Themes show up: her travelling boots, her cat, music, the artists she admires. Admiration itself is a theme, flowing through both the photos and text: these things are worth paying attention to. It’s a form both of respect outward toward the artists, and to Smith herself: her view, her taste, her declaration that this matters.
And time moves. Birthdays, guitars played once but no longer, gravestones, leaves covering the ground, a child as a child and later full-grown. Smith herself, as a child, a young woman, older now, looking forward in some photos and back in others.
It’s a specific world that Smith captures, the hippie-artsy optimistic-scrappy culture I imagine of the 1960s, when nobody had any money and everybody made something anyway. It’s not a world I lived through, and who knows how accurate the stories run – everything is sepia toned. Either way, the ethos lingers, artists making art, musicians making music, times changing but all of it continuing on.
I read the book more slowly than I expected. How long could it take, after all? Three hundred and sixty five pages, each page with an image and maybe three lines of text. But I turned the pages slowly, looking at the photos closely, reading the text twice.
Watching time move.