Migratory birds: illustrating Andersen's "nightingale"

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Author: Mikhail Magaril
Date: Oct. 2006
From: Marvels & Tales(Vol. 20, Issue 2)
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,944 words

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I remember reading about a popular survey from the beginning of the twentieth century. The question asked: what books would you take with you to a deserted island? If I were asked the same question, it would probably need to be phrased differently, more along the lines of: which books would you take with you if you were to move to a different country, one that spoke a different language, had a different culture and different traditions? When I moved from the Soviet Union to the United States, the Soviet government allowed only two pieces of luggage per person to be taken out of the country Among the most important things I took with me was a book that I didn't even notice I had packed.

I'm sure many of us have books from our childhood that we think form many of the beliefs we hold on to throughout our lives. Hans Christian Andersen's Stories and Fairy Tales (Moscow, 1955) was my favorite. I could look at its illustrations for hours, and when I went to sleep at night I would even put it under my pillow. After some years passed and I grew older, I started to understand that each of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales held second meanings that were intended for adults. This reminded me of those strange Chinese sculptures in the tsar's palace near St. Petersburg. Each sculpture consists of delicately cut ivory spheres, each one contained within another one that is smaller in diameter than the pervious sphere. Like these sculptures, Andersen's fairy tales held many layers of meaning for me.

Upon arriving in New York I was connected to the Center for Book Arts, where I continued to work as an apprentice for seven years. Though I had a master's degree from the Moscow Graphic Art School, I realized that I still had a lot to learn, especially in terms of physically making a book, including how to set type, print it, and make a binding. In the field of book art I believe it is preferable--though it may be very, meticulous at times--to make everything by hand. The work of a book artist can be compared to the work of an actor. The actor is constantly haunted by each new role he accepts. The role invades his thoughts and actions long after rehearsal is finished, because he is always working on perfecting that role. The same is true of a book artist. When working on a new project, he constantly thinks about it and lives in it, gradually perceiving even the text of the book as his own creation. The themes of my earlier book projects seemed to follow me as I began work on new endeavors. While working on my projects, I noticed that the image of birds seemed to appear in all of them. A few years ago I completed work on a book by Oscar Wilde titled "The Happy Prince." In it, a swallow is one of the main characters....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A168820915