It was a sleepy afternoon in Central Library… and all that could be heard were the whispers of Oscar Wilde.
The inspiration for these ‘living books’ stems from the sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451 where all books were incinerated and so the only way to preserve them is by memory. The performance based artist Mette Edvardsen created this ‘living books’ concept with the vision of non-professional performers memorizing a book creating an intimate story telling experience for their solitary audience member. The project has been presented in association with the local arts community: Birmingham REP and Central library.
Tucked away in the corner of the library Elly Clarke ‘read’ Oscar Wilde’s short stories to me, entirely from memory, and all I had to do was sit back and listen. It was a simple yet intense experience, with no gimmicks to distract from the power of the story or the performance. But what was perhaps even more impressive than her ability to memorise and deliver large amounts of text was the connection created between the performer and her audience; just Elly and I. Someone who I had never met before was reading a one hundred year old story to me, and I was being transported through their living book into Oscar Wilde’s imagination. In a society where it is out of the norm to smile to one another on public transport this was a very refreshing experience. A sense of community and inclusion was created as despite the hustle and bustle of modern life someone had taken the time to memorise a whole story and was now spending their time sharing that with me. At certain points in the performance I found myself feeling like a child reminiscing in the joy of having a bedtime story.
The idea of the ‘living books’ seems especially pertinent in Birmingham as the Central Library is being closed to make way for a newer and more aesthetically pleasing building. With the libraries imminent closure the themes of loss and forgetting seem prevalent in the atmosphere of the venue, however I found that the performance was able to counteract this view as it depicted the power of the art of remembering.
Elly’s performance reminded me that it is not where books are stored that really matters, whether it be in a dreary old building or a glistening new one, but rather it is people’s desire to take the time to read and appreciate them. It is the timeless skill of storytelling that brings books to life.