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Between the Sheets

You know that feeling when you're in the office, you get that mid-afternoon slump and you suddenly feel all drowsy? This strange item (1896.10.81) in the Cambridge UL's special collections isn't helping. Although, to be honest, something about it is not very inviting. Apart from the fact it's way too small and already occupied, it's just a bit... odd. It's full of that familiar Victorian cloying sentimentality, but there's also an awkward conjunction of elements. Why on earth you'd make a book/bed is a question for Dean and Sons, who manufactured this back in the mid-1890s. It's really a toy, to be played with as much as read, a two dimensional cardboard structure that folds out into three dimensions. It's unusual in that pop up or fold out books have toy elements within them, or unfold out into a toy or model. This is the other way around: it's a toy that contains a book. It's aimed squarely at girls: there's a doll in the bed, to be rocked to sleep. But instead of sheets there's a book of nursery rhymes. Reading it isn't very easy though: you can't hold the book separately so it's confusing as well as logistically difficult. Is it a book with a bed attached or a bed with a book attached?

You might assume it's the only bed-book hybrid in existence, but you'd be wrong. Here's one in the Beinecke Library, much bigger and more unwieldy, around two feet long and very solid, made of iron, springs and fabric. It's a piece by a book artist, Tamar Stone, called 'Asylum...Institution...Sanitarium', from 2006. Here the visual pun works much better, turning the bedsheets into pages that can be turned and read. This is creepy, but intentionally so, harnessing its weirdness to its theme. It's an uncomfortable looking asylum bed, embroidered with the testimony of of women who have been incarcerated from the late 19th century to current times. The intimacy of turning back the sheets to reveal these stories concealed feels distinctly strange, but it's only a sidestep from the act of turning pages, so calls to mind the echoes between these two kinds of sheets - bed sheets and pages. The topology is similar. They're stacked, closed, layers that are turned back to open up a space for us. We can slide into both, losing ourselves in them. But both can contain or hold traces of stories. I'm thinking also of Christa Wolf's Quilt Memories, in which an old, found quilt is bound into book form, so that its pages are a receptacle for all kinds of fragments and flotsam and jetsam of life and history. You can hear my discussion a about that piece with Katie Trumpener on the podcast page.


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