I would like to reflect on the ways in which books—that is, the material objects themselves—exert a humanizing influence on us. I would also like to consider, albeit obliquely, the consequences of living in a world where ideas and opinions abound, but books, pages of printed words, bound together, are marginalized.
I am certain I have fellow travelers, fellow people of the book—or, more specifically, like-minded souls committed to books. Our shelves sag, our nightstands are cluttered, our attics and basements bulge with boxes that we move from home to home, unable to leave them behind, even if we haven’t pulled back the packing tape in years. And all the while, each of us, in pocket or purse, carries a screen that can conjure in a nanosecond all the world’s libraries in all the world’s languages, present, past, and imagined.
Yet we persist in turning actual pages, cradling in our hands that inconvenient, inefficient thing that the novelist Paul Scott defines drolly in his The Raj Quartet as a “a small, hard, rectangular object, whose pages are bound along one edge into fixed covers and numbered consecutively.” Moreover, we generally recoil at the proposition that screens and devices convey the same experience as reading a printed book. Indeed, we often argue that devices impede education, that communication has decayed with the rise of social media, that a digitized world confounds the imagination. When pressed, however, can we make a rational, or at least reasonable, case for our attachment to these objects?
I’m not really sure I can. Of course, I defend books and bookishness and bibliophilia all the time. It is a theme I warm to readily. I am, after all, president of a college with a “great books” curriculum. But I’m not certain that I’m not simply posturing. Defending books seems to be a mark of a cultured individual, seems to place one on the side of civilization. I find it pleasing to be thought of as cultured and civilized. Whenever I make the case for books, I use terms like soulfulness, providence, and passion. It’s also pleasing to be thought of as soulful, providential, and passionate. But in insisting that books make us more capaciously human, am I actually being mawkish, or sentimental, or simply contrarian? Is it true that a life with books is better than a life without books, or do I simply wish it to be true?
What is so compelling about a book? I think, at heart, that it makes a promise. A great conversation has been carried on over centuries engaging the most fundamental human questions. This conversation has been conducted primarily through these objects. And the promise is that you too will always be welcome to join this conversation—entry is as easy as opening a cover and turning a page.