Monday, August 20, 2012

What is a Book? (An Elegy in Progress)

What is a book? A record, a new thing, a reflection, its own shining, a synthesis of all that there already was or is into  something never before existing? A novel arrangement of ideas and images in new proportions, it needs to exist in space and to take its place next to all the already existent objects of the world. Not to be simply erased or deleted, but firmly present in weight and dimension, density, thickness, and height. If you want to make a book go away, you have to burn it, and thereby consider what it is you are trying to suppress.

In-scription, In-spiration. It must in-teract with the physical, with carving, with breath, it must push up against what already is, against a resistance of the real. Lacking weight, it lacks substance, lacks power, lacks heft, lacks reality. If imagination is to gain credence, have purchase over the status quo, it must be given body, in art, in the author-ity of the book bound with in-tention (tension too) and care. It exists in the in between realm between that which already is and that which is mere fancy or thought. It is not frozen or fixed like reality as a given event, choice, object or mode of life, but is still freely intermediary as possibility, as embodied experiment, an offering…as one book among many, next to other books, a midrash, conversation, over ages, timelessly present. 

What is a book? A considered arrangement of words and ideas and images, a statement or explanation of passionate concerns, it is bound on both sides, necessitating some choice, closure, temporary decision and selecting out, It is not the whole world, though it may offer itself as microcosm, as metaphor for the whole world. It is a contribution to the larger cosmos, a piece of it, one voice in a choir. It is observer and witness and also evidence and artifact; it is a record of what happened and of what did not, of what is and what could be, a polemic, an elegy, a wish and a regret. What is a book? A moment and a time traveler, a reflection of the present and a conversation reaching backward over time and forward into the future, speaking with the long dead and booming forth so that the now living can speak with those who have not yet been born,

There are particular volumes we love, the Vie de Boheme, passed around and signed, as each one reads it he or she becomes a member of the Bohemian club, the favorite foxed Swift, the Hafiz with the golden marbleized silk, the crimson leather Looking Glass, purchased in Bath, the....And together they make up a rainbow, their variegated spines lining the walls, the cocoons of our  studies that are like another layer of mind around our skulls, where the ideas and fancies can circulate, where we might even open up a volume to refresh our memories as we reach in the repositories of the mind itself when grasping after a word, a passage, a line that haunts us. And find a pressed flower, a lover’s beribboned lock, a note slipped in by former readers, by unknown friends who stopped some afternoon, like us, upon a special passage in the same book, and reflected on its import as the rain poured down outside, or sun, or hail, or canon fire. A book may have traveled far in time and space, and seen many things it does not tell straight out, though tell it might, were we to read between its lines, and trace the signs on spine and endpapers, in foxings, spills, folds, and inset slips of paper, leaves, and other tokens of lives once lived. Responses to the words of the book itself, or the book's ideas mixed with the impressions of the outside world, fleeting and changing, perchance, either scribbled in margins or inserted on thin onion skin between the pages, conversations with the ages, and curious bookmarks from book stores long gone under…

(The smell of a book, some say,  like the smell of a woman…or the musky smell of a man:  one loves it if one loves the man or woman, and whosoever does not love women and men and books, well...)

The ones put away in annexes because they were for special tastes only…yet when the exotic seeker finds them he feels himself as lucky as any treasure hunter, though decades had gone by before anyone dreamed of wanting her. She waits, in silence, in a dark humble room for decades, her name forgotten but for a mention in some other obscure tome, and might one day, be important to some one.

To see the collected libraries of beloved long dead authors, the books they read and gazed at from their chairs, thumbed and pored over, perused and fell asleep beside or stayed awake to devour, read from to a lover or a daughter, fervently sighed or fulminated over, to touch the passages where they were first discovered, in original margins and on the page—atop, below, betwixt one page and the next—can mean so much…what word is underlined, what drop of sweat atop what page, what well-worn even dog-eared much returned to creased passage? Will there even be libraries like these in the future, or will the writers and readers of today leave no trace at all of their obsessions, their particular passions, even their guilty pleasures, of the concatenation of strange taste next to more catholic, of ancient next to contemporary, of pulp alongside sacred, of scientific next to fantastical, or poetical alongside logical treatise…no trace at all of what, if anything, they cared enough about to own, to arrange, to carry, to move in heavy boxes from house to house, nor what of all the wit and wisdom of the world was granted a place in the limited space of their mortal book shelves. Oh book shelves! And book ends, in forms as various as peacock tails and locomotives, sphinxes and cities. Are you to be artifacts of the past, now used only to hold unspeakably de-spirited objects, and maybe in time not even a ghostly still photograph staring back at us from the depths of the ages.

A book will show its age and the age of what was written in it. Its binding faded and pages foxed and worn, its weathered pages tell a history. If it survived a fire, say, or was salvaged, water-logged,  from a flood, swollen and heroic, its pages like the waves themselves, no virgin parchments more, but experienced travelers, a testament to salty, briny life, and death and grit. It carries more than just its content, its body itself is encrusted with life, with barnacles and breath, signs of contact with the past and signs to carry into the future, as messages of what we loved and of what we thought and dreamed.

A book has a place of origin, a home and history, bound in the materials of its birthplace, of Spanish leather or Chinese silk, in Irish linen or American flax, in Japanese rice paper, or Indian hemp, its type and design teeming with tell-tale signs, its orthography shifting from decade to decade, with emphasis in black letter or in subtle san serif, hand-colored or with gilded spine, embossed and crammed with delicate serigraph portraits and etched maps and charts that fold out and expand the very world. 

It has a place and time of death, when the spine is so cracked it falls off of itself and reveals the interior organs of the book, what old papers were used to glue on the spine, and what string used to stitch. When the book begins to die we see how it was born, and marvel at the sturdy but delicate art that bound the separate ventricles, and married the cover boards to the rest, with marbleized or silken end papers, we see its hopeful beginning, as it was christened with colophon and edition, and sent out into the world; and though its title might now be barely visible, rubbed off by many loving fingers, and its leaves are close to crumbling, perused over centuries by our fellows, we can take it one more time up to our noses and inhale its smell of life and moldering decay, and in this bouquet we recognize our own fate, and listen carefully to the whisperings of this old sage, as the pages crumble in our hands. Books tied up with string, their brittle leather covers crumbling, the pages falling out like loose teeth and the thin white hair of sages, still whispering wisdom, but so low we must lean in close to hear, before they turn entirely to dust and the secrets are lost for ever. There is always that last moment when we know that to turn the page may be to consign it to oblivion; yet we hope that it may speak to us one last time, so we dare, and touch, and hasten thereby the inevitable force of time. But that, my mortal friends, is life. And a well-made book, though it crumbles to dust, lasts a good deal longer than most of us.

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