Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reader's Diary #938- Fran Hurcomb: Old Town

Before I talk about the content of Fran Hurcomb's Old Town, I feel I first need to address the format: the coffee table book. I'm not a fan. They're big old awkward buggers, aren't they? They can't fit on a shelf, but then I guess they're not supposed to. They're meant to be kept on a coffee table, d'uh. The idea is that you have them out for guests, in case they get bored and want something to flip through. Is this a problem? Is your living room akin to a waiting room? I've been racking my brains to think of a way that eReaders can kill the coffee table book as they have other books. Have an iPad out on the coffee table? Have free wi-fi downloads read to go so that your guests can check out the books on their cell phones when you dart to the kitchen for bacon-wrapped whatevers? Anyway, all I know is that coffee table books look pretty but they're a damned nuisance when you want to store one away. And incredibly awkward to hold if you actually want to read one cover to cover.

All that aside Old Town is a wonderful look at Yellowknife's old town. For the unfamiliar, Yellowknife may only have a population of roughly 20,000, but it's broken up into some pretty distinct subdivisions. There's the troubled Northlands, the Niven mansions, the working class of the "behind Walmart" area, the downtown area, and of course, old town. Fran Hurcomb, an old town resident since the 70s, refers to it as "Yellowknife's defining neighbourhood" and while it might seem like inflated neighbourhood pride, I think few Yellowknifers would disagree. It's certainly the most interesting and picturesque— and no, it's not where I live.

Old Town is a photography book first and foremost, that uses archival photos and Hurcomb's own stunning shots to tell the history of Yellowknife's oldest part of town and the eccentric, talented, and determined people that have lived there and have maintained its unique image and reputation. Historical and personal essays balance out the photos, giving intellect to the heart.

Though Old Town is a beautiful and informative book, I had a bit of an odd reaction to it. I felt at times like an impostor, like I didn't really belong here. See, I agree that old town is what gives Yellowknife its character. Hurcomb, like the old towners before her and since, belong to a breed of independent hippies. Rugged bohemians. They have jam sessions on houseboats that they build by hand. They take week long canoe trips, gut their own fish, and tell the narrative in sequential mosaics. I admire the hell out of these people but good lord, they can make you feel inadequate. Not that Hurcomb's book is elitist at all (is hippie-elitism even a thing?) but it was a reminder that Yellowknife was definitely not built on the backs of dandies like me.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think hippie-elitism is definitely a thing! But if I were to judge a book by its cover, I would certainly leaf through Old Town, as that vibrant photo made me want to see more.

I tend to keep coffee table books on the floor, leaning them against the wall or the side of a cabinet. Of course then you need to vacuum around them...

Anonymous said...

Great points about coffee table books! But I hope they don't die out. I love looking at Great Big Pictures, in tangible form, not on a screen. I keep mine stacked on a closet shelf; occasionally one of us drags one out and it gets perused & shuffled about till someone else gets tired of stubbing their toes on it usually while vacuuming - good point, Barbara - for as we don't actually own anything fitting the description of "coffee table" our book piles generally reside on the floor. As the main reading areas are beside tall windows with conveniently wide sills, teacups etc. nicely sit on those, though books don't fit.
Whenever we have company we are busy talking to each other; I can't think of anyone ever opening up a book to pass the time, unless of course it is something of general interest to the crowd at hand, by a local writer/artist/photographer & then it gets plunked in the middle of the table & passed around the circle as the conversation level gets higher & higher. Otherwise we reserve these types of books for quiet personal contemplation in good light.
Your particular choice sounds quite fascinating. I would love to leaf through it.
I had to chuckle at the hippie-elitism comment, had to chuckle, though we ourselves are on the fringes of that particular demographic in our own little corner of the world.