by Linda Ligon
If you’re a weaver, maybe over the age of 40, and someone says “green book,” you know exactly what they’re talking about. That label doesn’t describe the title or the content or name the author, but its existence since 1944 has created an ecosystem of readers—tens of thousands of them—for whom it is a defining touchstone of their craft life.
Books can be that way. On the one hand, they are fixed, stuck in time, immutable. On the other, they have secret lives based on the relationships, known or unknown, among the people who read them. (Think Gutenberg Bible!) You could compare the understory of a book, the human readership, to the mycelium of mushrooms. It can grow far and wide in secret, only to pop out in unexpected places and times.
The books I’ve published under the Thrums imprint have had readerships modest in number but with sometimes surprising effects. I think of Maya Gods and Monsters, a handsome and somewhat quirky little book by Carol Karasik. It was a hard sell from the beginning. Just didn’t catch on. But at some point a year or two in, one of the major distributors of books to public schools noticed it and began ordering by the hundreds. Now Itzamna and K’Inich Ahau are included in some districts’ curricula, right up there with Zeus, Athena, and Osiris. Now there’s a generation of school kids who might have heard of Grandmother Moon, who weaves together in our clothes “all the rhythms, all cycles, all songs.”
The first book Thrums published, Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands: Weaving Patterns, Dreaming Memories, was conceived as a guide to Andean textiles for tourists to pick up as they were encountering all the wonderful hats and skirts and mantas that make the streets of Cusco such a visual kaleidoscope. It has served that purpose well, but it has also found a readership in the U.S. and beyond, enticing people to travel and visit (or dream about doing so) and appreciate the Quechua culture in all its aspects. It’s in the shared consciousness of at least ten thousand people; they don’t know each other, but they know where the people wearing some of those striking hats and vivid carrying cloths come from, and even a little bit of how they live. There’s a shared appreciation of another culture, which now maybe doesn’t seem so strange.
Another example: Rug Money: How a Group of Maya Women Changed Their Lives through Art and Innovation. This story of a Guatemalan rug-hooking cooperative, born out of need, nurtured with care, has helped usher scores of rural Maya women from dead-end poverty to sustainable lives, respect in their communities, and hopeful futures for themselves and their families. Like most Thrums Books, Rug Money devotes much space to telling the stories of the individual weavers themselves. The focus is as much on them as on the splendid rugs they create. The message is that there’s human endeavor behind the work, and that’s an important source of its value. A rug is more than a rug. It’s a manifestation of a singular person’s life and experiences and will and creative urge. For the women we profiled in the book, seeing themselves in those pages has been a kind of validation. It puts them on equal footing with the people who buy the book, buy the rugs. It breaks down the “us-them” character of many cross-cultural transactions.
So look at your book shelf. Look at those stiff spines, those reams of paper, those unchanging words, page after page. Now imagine each book as a portal into the cultural consciousness of the hundreds or thousands of other people who have read it. Imagine the hidden lives of those books, and the human lives they have affected. Just imagine.
Linda Ligon has spent her entire adult life in publishing, mostly focused on traditional crafts. Her stint with Thrums Books in recent years took her to many parts of the world, meeting many wonderful indigenous weavers. She is currently a Founding Partner of Long Thread Media, publisher of Handwoven, SpinOff, and Piecework.