The scale of Andrew Beccone’s office is intimate, and he sits right in the middle of it, with dozens of books in teetering piles everywhere. They’re all peculiar, outdated, obscure and worthless throwaways, largely excavated from other people’s junk. One glance through the shelves yields The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems, The Pleasure of Needlepoint, and a thin volume titled Ships.
Dispensability is what makes Beccone’s collection unique, and for over a decade the Reanimation Library has functioned doubly as one of the city’s few public resources for oddball books and as an internationally exhibited work of art.
The library occupies a first floor studio at Proteus Gowanus, a Brooklyn-based art gallery, which on June 28 decided to call it quits. The day before uprooting his studio, Beccone, cross-legged and leaning back in his swivel chair, seemed unfazed. “Maybe I should be more worried than I am,” he admitted with a shrug, “but everything depends on who gets hold of the building and on the rent they offer me. I’ll stick it out here for as long as I can. I’m going to keep doing this, but where doesn’t really bother me. If I have put everything in storage for a little while and work on something else, that’s fine.”
This kind of adaptability is at the library’s core. A brief manifesto handpainted on the wall clarifies Beccone’s mission: “These books have been culled from thrift stores, junk shops, sidewalks, and stoop sales around the country and are offered as resource material for artists, writers, and other cultural archeologists.” He can find books anywhere, so the library’s future is a matter of finding four walls to house it in.
Beccone’s creative life has always been varied. He received a degree in Library Science, but spent many years playing in bands and making artwork from pictures and text dragged over the face of a live photocopy machine.
One book, picked out of a trash heap, triggered the idea of building a library: The Behavior of Man, an Introduction to Psychology by Karl U. Smith, published in 1958. The dust jacket is carrot orange — whether from old age or bad taste is hard to tell — and depicts a silhouetted figure dangling from puppet strings. Online, it’s $1.15, max.
“This book isn’t worth anything,” Beccone said as he thumbed through its pages. “No one cares about this book. The material is outdated, but I loved the images. They’re interesting, and they were really useful for my work. So I started collecting these things for myself. But little by little my own work faded and the collection got bigger. It was totally unconscious. One day I just realized that this is the artwork.”
Ten years ago he opened up his collection for public use. The whole library is 25,000 books housed in five tall shelves, but Beccone has picked each one carefully, according to deliberate yet ever-evolving criteria: design, typeface, publication date, illustrations and the ir/relevance of the material are all factors.
On a display rack is a ragged hardcover titled Gregg Shorthand For Colleges Volume One Diamond Jubilee Series, Second Edition and right beside it is How to Establish a Cold Typesetting Department & Train Operating Personnel. And so on. The library is, of course, indexed according to the Dewey Decimal System.
“I tend to like books that skirt the boundaries of fact and fiction,” he said, citing Emotional Anatomy: The Structure of Experience, a treatise on “bioenergetic psychotherapy” by Stanley Keleman, a chiropractor. “There are a number of books in the collection that promote some individual’s weird theories. These are books that might seem plausible at first, but the more time you spend with them the more you realize that they are largely untethered from reality.”
The library has had various adjuncts in England, Lebanon, Germany and Mexico. Just left of his desk is a pushcart overflowing with a small Arabic-language library.
“This is the collection I exhibited in Beirut last year. After landing in the city, I had just ten days to find all these. I immediately started rushing around to bookstalls and bookstores. I managed in the end, but finding just the right books was mostly luck.”
Even if the art world has embraced the project (Philadelphia’s Vox Populi opened the first offshoot in 2009 and the Museum of Modern Art following suit four years later), official librarydom refuses to budge. Their reactions range from lukewarm to hostile.
“You know, I consider this very much a library,” Beccone said. “I’ve installed about sixteen branches from California to Germany. But the library world is a strange place. I went to school for this and they still think I’m trying to attack them for neglecting books or selling unread materials or something. At the same time this library is too out-there not to be accepted by the art world, which accepts almost anything as long as you call it art. But in the end it’s a library, and it’s meant to be used. It’s not a purely aesthetic experience.”
But the Reanimation Library continues to provide a rare resource for both artists and enthusiasts of off-kilter cultural junk. Even on the closing day various people came in to browse the shelves. When an old man in a suit and tie peeked inside the office but fled just as suddenly, Beccone gestured towards the blank white wall, with a 4×7 foot hole for a doorway, that separates his office from the rest of the library. “I really need to get rid of this thing,” he said. “My interactions were more satisfying when my desk was in the middle of the room. Just because this is an office visitors assume I’m doing something important. I don’t get it. I don’t even have a door.”
On the other side of the wall, the old man’s eyes eagerly scoured the pages of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather. He’d just heard that the library would be closing for a while, and decided stop in one last time to “get his fix and say goodbye.”