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Fall 2019: Bookshelves: Sacred Image



Bruce Baker’s bookshelves are a library. His library could be a museum.

There are first editions everywhere and in practically every discipline you can imagine. Beyond that, the art and artifacts—paintings, mammoth tusks, antique maps, a remonstrance from an old Catholic Church, even a rare carving on ivory by an African-American artist showing the journey of his people from slavery to freedom . . .

But when Baker shows me around, he begins with poster-sized color photographs on the wall—streets and port scenes of people in Bangladesh, India, and Vietnam. 

“I love photography,” he says, and when I ask him why these in particular, he answers: “None of them is posed.”

He picks up a slender volume from the shelf in the hallway before we get to the library.

“Here’s one of my favorite books, and one of my favorite poems,” he says. The book is A Certain Slant of Light: The First Hundred Years of New England Photography. He reads the poem by Emily Dickinson:

There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes . . .

He slides the book back into the shelf, picks up a guide to the paintings by the American landscape artist George Inness, and opens it on the baby grand piano to one of his favorites, The Lackawanna Valley Railroad 1856. It takes us 10 minutes to get to the shelves I’ll photograph later—you could spend years here and never run out of books to read, artifacts to investigate. 

We pass by the music shelves, where books about Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Schönberg, and Wagner rest under a shelf containing the complete set of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

“Here’s another favorite,” he says, picking up Poets in a Landscape, written by the legendary Columbia University scholar and teacher Gilbert Highet. He flips through it, then points to an 8 x 10 black-and-white photograph leaning against one of the shelves. The caption reads, “Round Table Stalwarts at the Scarlet Inn, 1970,” and pictured are Professor Vic Powell H’55, Ted Bedrick H’52, and Baker’s mentor, Professor of Classics Jack Charles H’52, who Baker says kindled his interest in linguistics, which led to the invention of Minspeak. 

“Learning how to decipher hieroglyphics in Jack Charles’ class really struck the spark,” he says. “That photograph is sacred.”