Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Notes And Comments

The Book’s the Thing

What is so compelling about a book?

Pano Kanelos

Used bookstore; Don Pablo/Shutterstock, Inc.

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.

Yet there is an even deeper promise implied—that in working through your own stack of books, you will have an intimate encounter with your interlocutors, these artifacts. Not with the words of The Brothers Karamazov, but with this particular instantiation of those words. Although The Brothers Karamazov exists in some abstract form, your encounter is with this Brothers Karamazov, your Brothers Karamazov. This is a form of commitment, and commitment is at the heart of relationships.

A relationship requires focus, demands attentiveness to the singularity of the other. It also leads to sacrifices, small and large. The very inconvenience of books, their weight, the space they take up, their expense, the difficulty of propping them up as you lie in bed at night, the challenge of reading in fading light: Our willingness to abide these inconveniences is a hallmark of love.

To love, as my colleague Eva Brann once shared, is to assume the proper posture toward the beloved. To read a book, particularly a great book, is to wrestle, like Jacob, with an angel. It is an act of both self-assertion and submission. And so, too, is love.

Digital works are conjured forth, then disappear. We consume them. They are instrumental. They are an illusion. What looks like a “text” is in reality patterned dots on a screen, sliding across a backlit landscape. They are spectral, ghost-like. Most importantly, they are not ours, because we do not have the opportunity to make them so. When they have served our ends, they recede back into the ether, like ripples fading into a pond.

A digital world serves the perpetual present of modernity, which fetishizes the present. The purpose of living perpetually in the now is to exercise our will without restraint. To make manifest our own authority, we erase the past and abnegate the future.

Books retain their own authority. They are radically, ontologically different from digital texts. They are embodied. They live in history. They have their own biographies, which can be as impressive as, or even more impressive than, our own. I have in my office a first edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. It has traveled farther and longer than I have, or ever will. Printed in 1651, near the close of the English Civil War, it survived when many others did not. In fact, the Epistle Dedicatory to the work is an extended threnody, lamenting the death of Hobbes’s intimate friend, the youthful Sidney Godolphin, whose life was lost in the conflict. Hobbes writes, “For in a way beset with those that contend, on one side for too great Liberty, and on the other side for too much Authority, ’tis hard to passe between the points of both unwounded.” Yet Hobbes’s Leviathan, the very copy from which I am transcribing these words, did make it through “unwounded.” And this book, after journeys we can only imagine, lives on a desk in an office in a country its author had not even dreamed of, but which has been shaped profoundly by the very words on its pages.

Not all books have such an eventful provenance, but each might. This ought to instill in us a sense of humility. We encounter each book through the vicissitudes of chance, and possess it on terms that are not our own. Indeed, it might be said that it possesses us, rather than the other way around. Our readings are provisional, fleeting. When I, like Sidney Godolphin, and Hobbes himself, am dust, this book will continue to provoke, to challenge. Here is another passage from Leviathan:

For the continuall change of mans body, destroyes in time the parts which in sense were moved: So that distance of time, and of place, hath one and the same effect in us.… This decaying sense, when wee would express the thing it self, wee call Imagination.… But when we would express the decay, and signifie that the Sense is fading, old, and past, it is called Memory.

Our imaginations decay. We decay. Even books decay. And we are all, finally, forgotten. Yet at some point in the future, some other reader will wrestle with this passage in this very copy of Leviathan. And I will be embedded within its memory, a spectral visitor, a transitory spirit. I am a volume in its library. This instills in me a sense of wonder. I wonder not simply that this volume has survived nearly four centuries, but that even as my power is fleeting, its power remains undiminished.

The other posture we ought also to find ourselves adopting in relation to the books in our lives is one of gratitude. Such gratitude perhaps best shows itself on the pages and covers of children’s books, which bear most evidently the marks of our love for them—the torn edges, the worn spots where we have returned over and over. Read it again, Daddy. Read it again. We return to what we love. And children, unabashed, caress and cradle their books, which are, in turn, patient, yielding. Readers leave their mark. Our experience of books and their corporality merge. They are extensions of us; they bear our imprint. But insofar as we are imprinted by them, we are also extensions of them.

Humility, gratitude, wonder. Instilling such in us, books make us more human. Books take us outside ourselves. They give and demand, offer and receive. This circuit is the circuit of love, which counterpoises the self and the other, then merges the two.

I find it fascinating that in an age when the printed word is increasingly a peripheral part of our experience, so many people have turned to writing on their own bodies. Books were originally printed on vellum, calf skin. Now everywhere one turns, one sees tattoos: aphorisms, Chinese characters, declarations of love. I wonder if this skin-writing might actually be a cry for permanence. As words slip away, sliding like mercury across the digital wasteland, we try desperately to pin something down. Yet to wear one’s interior life on one’s sleeve collapses the text and its reader. In my darker moments, I wonder if this is not adjacent to nihilism. In the abyss, meaning is nowhere. Faced with this terrifying prospect, we are compelled to become meaning-generators. Yet the meaning we generate, if it is simply an act of desperation, is an affirmation of nothingness. Its sum is zero. We slip back into the void.

Books do not merely amplify our humanity—they mirror it. A book is language embodied. So, too, are we. We are creatures of Logos. We experience the world through a thread of language, slowly unspooling in our minds, each word a part of an unending sentence, pronounceable only when breath meets the profane air. Our books, which share our glorious capacity to live in language, also share our fragility. Yet they affirm something deeper.

Our stacks of books are not individuated, atomic souls. They are, rather, the whisperings of life lived reflectively. Their story is not one of erasure, but of accretion—and this, they say, and this, and this. Logos vaults from book to book, from book to reader, from reader to book. Our libraries, personal, public, represent the synapses of the soul. Alight with an intellective flame, books shine upon one another and upon us. And so long as they do, there can be no darkness, no abyss; nothing will come to nothing, pushed back by the vivacity of Logos itself, which is, in the end, just a metonym for love.