This is one of my all-time favorite of David Amerland’s Sunday Reads. Rather than add more thoughts for you to process, I will just let you get to the heart of what he’s saying here about books. It’s great.
HT Alexandra Riecke-Gonzales
Originally shared by David Amerland
When it comes to books I am an oddity. Because I read everything I discovered some classics only through the “required reading list” of my High School English Lit teacher who insisted that we get through it all in our summer time. Fahrenheit 451 (https://goo.gl/fFpO8a) appeared weird to me. The idea that someone would feel threatened by a book seemed surreal, crazy. The kind of thing that could not be taken seriously.
That 13-year-old me who read it thought it an anachronism, something harkening back to Nazi Germany (https://goo.gl/Kqib4D) which had turned itself a nation revolving around symbolic gestures and their amplification. The passing years have not made me wiser, but they have given me the necessarily real-world knowledge to understand the importance of a book and the tragedy represented by its destruction.
When Lady Chatterley’s Lover (https://goo.gl/va3QuI) threatened Britain’s sense of values so much that D. H. Lawrence’s masterpiece could not be published in the country until 1960, some 32 years after he’d first published it, we realize the hypocrisy of pretending that in the Western world we love all books and see them as harmless works of entertainment.
Very recently in Russia (which I will not quantify culturally today) Henry Miller’s works were publicly torched (https://goo.gl/qxAbQB) citing their amoral enticement as a reason. Since the year 2000 there have been some very notable (and public) instances of books burnt: http://goo.gl/EGAfN2 as a means of making a statement.
There is a paradox here. On the surface of it, we, seemingly rational human beings, grab a construct made out of glue, dead trees and (sometimes) thread and toss it in the fire because we want to destroy an idea. And deeper down, subconsciously, in the places where we synthesize the unarticulated notions of symbols, we understand that a book is a vehicle. A structured presentation of thought that leads to more thought and it is thinking that scares us, just as we try to control it and guide it through the act of a book’s destruction.
Books are a manifestation of several things: The most obvious one they are thought made concrete. A structured, reasoned and carefully arranged construction of a particular type of thinking which reveals an experience and explores an ideology. Whether fiction or non-fiction, a book reveals as much about its author and the times it is has been written in as it reveals about its intended audience and their concerns and lives. It is also the next stage through which our civilization preserves knowledge.
Books represent a technological advantage over the suggested fragility and unreliability of the oral tradition: https://goo.gl/VZ2D7L where the knowledge we need resides in someone’s memory and their ability to retrieve it, at will, more or less intact.
If a book is a means of communication: https://goo.gl/TMeUab and as a species we have always strived to communicate better, then the unstated, obvious question we need to ask, is why do books threaten us so much that entire nations run by seemingly responsible people feel inclined to pursue a meaningless war against them: http://goo.gl/2MGpPt.
There is a seeming disconnect between cause and effect here that does not entirely make sense until we delve a little deeper. A book is indeed, a form of communication. But as a step up from the oral tradition it represents an upgrade several orders of magnitude higher than anything that had gone before. By lowering the energy threshold required to communicate (a book can reach millions whereas as storyteller is bound by his physical presence and the physics of talking to a large audience), a book becomes both a repository of cultural history, information and ideas and a means of spreading all of that irrespective of constraints of time and, indeed space. So a book, as a means of communication represents the total disruption of the traditional Gatekeeping of Information which used to be controlled by the Priesthood (hieroglyphics, quite literally means “sacred scribbles” – https://goo.gl/Wd7ZSK and during the Middle Ages the Church was the principal means through which books were created and knowledge spread: http://goo.gl/4LpJh) and the State.
Books are a stone thrown at the glass cage of assumed Authority. Those who fight against them and those who destroy them are railing not just against their content which surely should give the opportunity for discussion, but against the loss of control of a message, that the book represents for them.
Book lovers (https://goo.gl/7zx00U) understand that. In consuming books they seek to become the catalysts for change within their communities. But books do way more than that. They become the roadmap we use to explore the wider world, become more familiar with our inner nature and find the point at which these two intersect: https://goo.gl/jvWSdY.
Books open our minds, says Lisa Bu: http://goo.gl/eIR1jF and our brains respond neurobiologically to what we read: http://goo.gl/fc6HmR becoming, at a subliminal level, the practice grounds where we learn concepts such as justice, fairness, heroism, beauty, love and morality.
Because nothing good can come without some pitfalls, at least, books also present us with a trap of sorts. Their physical manifestation, their unarguably concrete presence has the ability to impact us with its symbolism in a way that is arguably disproportionate to the value of their content: https://goo.gl/PV33IZ. We still look at the surface of things, the binding, colors, weight and feel of a book still play a role. A gem-encrusted, gold-leaf covered Bible acquires greater value than a lesser counterpart. A book that’s 450 pages long, feels weightier in our hand than a pamphlet of just 20 pages. These are contextual clues we use to assess value that are more rooted in our ancient past than the modern age when an idea can be described in just two paragraphs and it can change our minds and our lives.
I am not going to say that’s wrong. A book, as a whole, is an ensemble of intelligence, passion, craftsmanship and art. How it looks and feels is every bit as important as what it says. And here we reach an interesting conundrum. In the digital age, when books are delivered across the world, whisper-quiet, in seconds to our devices, their symbolic nature, the part that made Hitler’s goons want to burn them, the aspect which has still made so many around the world set fire to dead trees because they want to make a point, is lost: http://goo.gl/0eUXac.
McLuhan was right in that the medium is the message (https://goo.gl/xeixZb) to a great extent (http://goo.gl/oXBmIY). Digital books represent an opportunity to access knowledge, faster, deeper and more precisely than ever. But knowledge requires something more. It needs a symbol of sorts, and here digital has not yet managed to provide it.
Over my life, I collected books. By 2005 I had over 3,000 tomes in my home library. Some of them were obsolete and I kept them because of what they represented: the commitment of the younger me, spending paper round money to buy expensive books (transportation costs to Australia in the 70s made books worth almost their weight in gold) because they opened up worlds I could enter at will. Others were memories. How I felt when I came across a particular book by accident. A book I would have never bought (and never fully read) given to me by my father as his way of making up for an argument. A library book I never returned because I left the country. A book given as a gift by a former lover.
Over the last eleven years I’ve changed continent three times and homes more than a dozen times. It became impossible for me to take those books with me. So I digitized them. I have since added to them. I have on my tablet over 4,000 books, on my phone several hundred more. I love the freedom of being able to dip into my library at will, whenever the opportunity arises. I love the fact that I can search them, classify them, categorize them.
I know it’s not the same. I used to, on a Sunday, just go through my book collection, coffee cup in hand, touching some volumes, rediscovering others. Losing myself in both the content of the books and the memories each could evoke. My battered copy of Dune was an accidental find, my picking up and dipping into a book while waiting angrily for a girl I was to meet who was late (I was still a school). My copy of The Lord of the Rings was given to me by someone I’d loved and hurt. Those books were part of me, part of my journey in a way digital isn’t. There was a beauty in my books which my digital library does not yet have (http://goo.gl/VntWuP).
And that’s the challenge. Freed from the constraints of the physical, we use digital to do incredible things. But we have yet to make them human in the way the things we’ve given up were. We don’t yet know how to show restraint or exercise control. We are not yet sure just how all this power to do almost anything that lies at our fingertips translates into action that has us actually do something.
It’s not that we do not understand meaning and value. We do. Both come from our personal investment of who we are in what we do. Digital forces us to be mindful in ways physical didn’t. Because our actions are intentional (http://goo.gl/33DSPf) we now need to understand why we do things better in order to do them well enough to truly matter. This goes as much into book buying as anything else.
I hope you’ve been intentional enough in your weekly shop this week to have ample coffee at hand, mountains of croissants, donuts, cookies and chocolate cake, without which much of the meaning of our Sunday world, would wane. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.