The multiple lives of States of Mind

17 August 2016

On until 16 October, ‘States of Mind‘ explores our understanding of the conscious experience from different perspectives. The book supporting the exhibition is a collection of literature, science and art delving into the mysteries of human consciousness. The book’s editor Anna Faherty reflects on the brief and varied lives one’s creations may lead upon being released it to the world. 

Museums and galleries are curious places to work, for many reasons. One is that they provide an opportunity to observe how the target audience for something you helped create behave and what they say in the exhibition space. Surreptitious spying, or eavesdropping, on museum visitors has practical value in terms of gathering information and insight that may help improve future exhibitions, but it can also be a deeply personal experience.

It’s hard not to be emotionally affected when you observe strangers interacting with, enjoying, being confused or affronted by something you developed. Seeing that thing take on a new life, often in unexpected ways, as the experiences of visitors shape their own interaction with the exhibition, and the interactions of others, can be even more affecting.

All this is in stark contrast to how I started my career: publishing print books. Unless you happen to produce works with the mass-market appeal of Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code or Gone Girl it’s highly unlikely that a publisher ever sees someone reading a book they have worked on. Even if they do, the reader is likely to be sitting in silence, offering limited opportunities to gauge their reaction, never mind overhearing an in-the-moment conversation about the work.

 L0017561 Florence Nightingale, seate, reading. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Florence Nightingale seated, reading. The life of Florence Nightingale Sarah A. Tooley Published: 1904 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
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Florence Nightingale isn’t giving much away about whatever she’s reading.

Sales figures, published reviews and other anecdotal modes of feedback can all help paint a picture of how a book has been received, but these either provide a measure of transactional success (without revealing any interaction or involvement with the book) or a strongly mediated perspective – a reaction people have thoughtfully constructed and edited before sharing. I still work on book projects, including compiling and editing States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness for Wellcome Collection, and I wish I could gain the same insight into readers that is possible by observing exhibition visitors.

Social media, of course, provides such an opportunity. While it, too, is mediated by the self-conscious act of posting a picture, statement or tweet to the world, the posts are openly accessible and widely shared. You only need to take a look at the #instareading or #bookstagram hashtags on Instagram to see how popular displaying and sharing books online is. Having said that, there’s surprisingly little research into how readers use Instagram or other social media to share their reading habits.

There is, however, plenty of commentary about the connection between books and readers and what books, and the display of them, say about their owners. As Harvard literature professor Leah Price has written, to expose your owned books to the world is “to compose a self”, an action that reveals “our most private selves and our public personas”. For anthologist and writer Alberto Manguel, readers’ identities are coloured by the book we see them reading but also the place where that reading is happening.

Searching the #statesofmind hashtag on Instagram and Twitter reveals a number of different places and modes in which people have shared the States of Mind anthology.

Some readers place the book on a surface or fabric (wood and bedspreads seem particularly popular), some position it in a domestic setting (with tea, coffee or a meal) and others display it alongside other books (which makes me feel in good company). A limited few show some element of themselves (usually their knees or hands), while one includes their pet (thanks @laurenaforry).

Only one Instagram post shows the interior of the book, which prompts the question of whether all these ‘readers’ are actually reading the book. Acquiring books for what novelist James Salter calls reasons “beyond (or instead of) wanting to read them” isn’t unusual. Books can be symbols of power and status, badges and talismans. They may, as curator Rowan Watson has written, be “paraded as marks of conspicuous consumption”, like the gold-embossed works of Shakespeare owned by Laurence, a character in Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party. “Part of our heritage,” says Laurence, “course, it’s not something you can actually read.”

Books may also play ceremonial roles (think of priests kissing missals or witnesses swearing on the Bible in court) or be used as measures of intellectual richness. Rather tantalisingly, Alberto Manguel equates the ownership of a book with “a sense of intellectual apprehension”.

I’ll leave you to interpret what the various Instagram posts in this article say about each book’s owner and their private and public lives, but these diverse scenes are also, in a way, snapshots of the lives lived by the book itself. As scholar and librarian David Pearson has written, when thousands of physical copies of a book are dispatched from the printer, what was once a single entity (an idea, then an electronic file containing written, edited and designed content) diverges into multiple objects, all setting off from the same starting point. “Each one of those copies,” says Pearson, “has its own subsequent and unique history, developing over time.”

In amongst the diverse social media histories of States of Mind there’s one that stands out from the crowd: a photograph showing the bright orange book placed on a white cloth beside a sepia portrait of a little girl and the dried out head of a yellow rose. This intrigued me so much I contacted the poster of the image (@poppytrixx) to find out more.

@Poppytrixx told me she had recently undergone a double lung transplant. Before the operation she was concerned that she might be different when she woke up, that some of her memory, identity or creativity (which she imagines as a yellow rose) would be taken away. She was under anaesthetic for more than eight hours and suffered morphine-induced hallucinations during her recovery. She now finds it remarkable that her memory and creativity remained intact and told me she found the book helpful in learning more about states of consciousness. The portrait of the girl symbolises this interest: “I enjoy her curious expression,” she says.

I have to admit this wasn’t a story I had expected to discover when I started searching for posts about the book I had conceived, researched, edited and project-managed. Poppytrixx’s experience, and her gratitude for the help the book had given her, struck me in a similar way to Alberto Manguel’s reaction when he sees someone on the subway reading a book he connects with: “she is … closer to me, by the mere act of holding that particular book in her hands, than many others I see daily.” As with museum exhibitions, seeing something I’d created take on an unexpected new life was extremely affecting.

So, thanks to those of you who have bought, and even read, the book. But thanks also to those of you who have, as David Pearson puts it, integrated the book into the “fabric” of your lives, and shared that private moment. It’s given me a fantastic opportunity to spy on just some of the brief and varied lives of my book. But I still wonder what might be going on in the thousands of other ones, both now and in the future.

Anna is an award-winning researcher, writer and teacher. She collaborates with global publishers and major museums on exhibition, digital and print projects. As well as editing States of Mind, Anna is also the author of our Reading Room Companion.