In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily to see the books your favorite authors are gifting.
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Though since followed by a number of monographs (including Lynda Roscoe Hartigan's beautiful multimedia Shadowplay/Eterniday), Kynaston McShine's thick, satisfying, and unputdownable Joseph Cornell still reserves a special place in my heart as the book that told me it was actually okay to be as quiet, vulnerable, and open to the ineffable feeling of life's passage that I'd spent most of my early adulthood learning how to suppress.
The body of the book is of course a thorough, mostly color catalog of Cornell's enchanting box constructions, but the real grabber is the sparkling, page-turning introduction, an illustrated biography detailing Cornell's vaguely privileged boyhood, his pinched and uncomfortable young adulthood when he became caretaker to his mother and palsied brother in greatly reduced surroundings in Queens, and the shadowbox/soap bubble/wonder cabinet–like artwork into which, for the rest of his life, he poured his depression and nostalgia for... something.
Needless to say, Cornell's celestially ecstatic work is bone-strippingly and mind-expandingly more sophisticated than simple sentimental longing — so much so that he takes on that all-enveloping sense of being one of those artists that only "you" understand — but the nuts and bolts behind it, as presented here, are a compact, inspiring, and companionable introduction for anyone who might have any inclination toward figuring out why we make art at all; Cornell alone shielded the flame of 19th-century humanism from the extinguishing bloviation of paint-slapping modernism in all its "heroism," and for this we owe him our thanks.
Finally, the connections to Christmas (understandably Cornell's favorite holiday) which string through and light up the text here and there are an added surprise and delight, and make it an appropriate gift for the season, as well.