I gave a signed copy of my new book about beer, “To Your Health!” to a couple of favorite bartenders and a bar owner, all of whom had been featured in a story or two in this book about beer. A few weeks later I asked each one how he enjoyed the book. And each admitted he hadn't yet opened the book, but assured me he put it in the bathroom. After my initial shock, I recognized that I was being paid the highest compliment. For a non-reader, the bathroom is the place of honor for reading material. A stack of books or magazines in the bathroom means, “this is valuable to me, and I am going to read it some day.”
What a different world than the one in which I live! In my world, books hold a place of honor and, more importantly, books are read. I love books. When I was a kid, the Tooth Fairy left us books. My first Tooth Fairy book was “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” by Crockett Johnson, which today remains my favorite children's book. I loved getting books from the Tooth Fairy, and treasured every one.
Because we were a Catholic family of four children, all of whom attended parochial school, we didn't have much money to spare, but books were always there. My father got many of these books for free, since they were demos at his place of work–he did PR for the Chicago Public Schools. We were fortunate to have a steady supply of children’s' books long after we had our permanent teeth.
Reading was a joyful activity in our family. We children taught each other to read long before we started first grade (there was no kindergarten at St. Hyacinth's School). I remember showing my younger brother how to sound out the letters in words; I was seven and he was three. Family vacations were always preceded by a trip to the library, to stock up on a dozen or so books to take along as we lounged at the lake or drove on our interminable car trips.
I was the bookworm of the family. In fourth grade I breezed through the classics on our classroom bookshelves–“Black Beauty,” “Oliver Twist”, and “Tom Sawyer.” I doubt these books would be considered suitable for a 10 year old today (even if they could read them), featuring abuse of both animals and children.
The urban landscape is overrun with paths. Road-paths pulling transport, pavement-paths and architectural-paths guiding feet towards throbbing hubs of commerce, leisure and abode.Beyond the limits of urban paths, planned and set in tarmac or concrete, are perhaps the most timeless paths of all. Gaston Bachelard called them Desire Paths, physical etchings in our surroundings drawn by the thoughtless movement of human feet. In planning the layout of a city designers aim to limit the emergence of worn strips of earth that cut through the green grass. People skipping corners or connecting distinct spaces vote with their feet the paths they desire. Many of the pictures on the right (from this Flickr group) show typical design solutions to the desire path. A delimiting fence, wall or thoroughfare, a row of trees, carefully planted to ease the human flow back in line with the rigid, urban aesthetic. These control mechanisms have little effect – people merely walk around them – and the desire path continues to intend itself exactly where designers had feared it would.
The technical term for the surface of a planetary body, whether urbanised, earth covered or extra-terrestrial, is regolith. As well as the wear of feet, the regolith may be eroded by wind, rain, the path of running water or the tiny movement of a glacier down the coarse plane of a mountain. If one extends the meaning of the term regolith it becomes a valuable metaphor for the outer layer upon or through which any manner of paths may be inscribed.
The self-titled first Emperor of China, Qín Shǐhuáng, attempted, in his own extravagant way, to re-landscape the regolith of time. By building the Great Wall around his Kingdom and ordering the burning of all the books written before his birth Qín Shǐhuáng intended to isolate his Kingdom in its own mythic garden of innocence. Far from protecting his people from the marauding barbarians to the West or the corrupting knowledge of the past Qín Shǐhuáng's decision to enclose his Kingdom probably expanded his subject's capacity for desire beyond it. There is no better way to cause someone to read something than to tell them they cannot; no better way to cause someone to dream beyond some kingdom, or attempt to destroy it, than to erect a wall around it. As we demarcate paths we cause desire to erupt beyond them. The regolith, whether physical or ethereal, will never cease to degrade against our wishes.