Book shelves as an elaborate hieroglyph of life

Anthony Daniels has written a terrific essay in The New Criterion series on “the digital challenge.” While the main subject is the fate of books, what really absorbed me is his personal account of how books, as physical possessions, are like tattoos or hieroglyphs of human individuality.

It would be vain to suggest that I valued [books] only for their content, as a rationalist might say that one ought; I valued them as physical objects and have accumulated thousands of them. I am not a bibliophile in the true sense, that is to say someone who finds excitement in a misprint on page 278 which proves that the book, which he might or might not ever read, is a true first edition. Nor am I a bibliomaniac in the true sense, the kind of person who will eventually be found lying dead under a pile of books that he has incontinently or indiscriminately collected because of some psychological compulsion to accumulate. No, I am something in between the two (as a physician put it when I was a student, as he tried to explain to a patient that he had myeloma, which was neither cancer nor leukaemia, “but something in between the two.”) I prefer a good edition, physically as well as literarily speaking, to a bad one; I buy more books than I read, though always with the intention of reading them; I am not an aficionado of rarity for rarity’s sake, though I have some rare things, upon which the eye of the avaricious bookseller called in by my relict will immediately alight as he offers her yardage, $5 a yard of books.

For the moment, however, I derive a certain comfort from looking over, and being surrounded by, my laden shelves. They are my refuge from a world that I have found difficult to negotiate; if it had not been for the necessity of earning my living in a more practical way, I could easily, and perhaps happily, have turned into a complete bookworm, or one of those creatures like the silverfish and the small, fragile, scaly moths that spend their entire lives among obscure and seldom disturbed volumes. I would have not read to live, but lived to read.

The shelves are an elaborate hieroglyph of my life that only I can read, and that will be destroyed after my death. Never having been a scholar of anything in particular, my life has been a succession of obsessions; as some murderers return to their crimes and become serial killers, I am a man of serial monomanias, each lasting a few months at most, and my books reflect this. A friend of mine, looking over them, said that anyone trying to discern from my books who I was or what I did would fail; for what has the history of Haiti to do with poisoning by arsenic, or the history of thought in nineteenth-century Russia with that of premature burial, plague, cholera, and the anti-vaccination agitation? Surprising numbers of books on all these matters are to be found on my shelves; and if I needed any reassurance of my own individuality, as the increasing number of people having themselves tattooed or pierced seemingly do, these shelves would supply it.

So important are books to me that when I go into someone’s house, I find myself drawn to the bookshelves, if any; I try to resist, but in the end succumb to the temptation. If all flesh is grass, all mind is books: at any rate, such is my prejudice, though I know it is not strictly true. What is absent from the shelves is as important, of course, as the silence of the dog that did not bark in the night.

My library, for the moment so solid and reliable, will dissolve after my death as surely as will my body. Some people claim that the knowledge that the atoms and molecules of which they are composed will survive to be absorbed into the wider world consoles them for the prospect of their death; and I, too, derived, until recently, some consolation from the fact that I am not really the owner of my books, but only the temporary guardian of them until they are passed on to the guardianship of someone else. It is true that when, in earlier years, I bought a book a quarter of a millennium old I looked at the names of the previous owners inscribed on its cover or title page and thought, “Now, at last, the book has found its true owner, its final resting place—me,” and pitied the previous owners for their failure to understand this, and for their ignorance of the book’s final destiny. But now I am more inclined to recall that I have owned the book for thirty years; in another thirty years it will be owned, or looked after, by someone else of whose identity I know nothing, and he will suffer from precisely my delusion and that of all previous owners.

* * *

Repeated surveys show that children spend less time reading than did previous generations. They instead devote many hours of their waking lives to electronic screens of one kind or another: not long ago some American researchers presented their results at a conference I attended that showed that American children now spend seven hours a day, on average, in front of a screen, whether it be television, computer, or telephone. They asked children at randomly generated times to use the video facility of their phones to film what they were doing at the time; and this showed that many of the children had several screens around them illuminated at the same time. Would this minestrone of simultaneous electronic stimulation permanently affect their ability or willingness to concentrate on one thing, to the detriment of real intellectual attainment? The researchers did not know the answer to this; certainly, those who spent more time in front of screens did worse academically, though whether this was cause or effect they were unable to say. A child who spends sixteen hours in front of screens is unlikely to differ from a child who spends only an hour in front of them only in this respect.

People of the book, such as I, not only believe that the replacement of the page by the screen will alter human character, thin it out, empty it of depth, but secretly hope this happens. A deterioration in human character consequent upon the demise of the book will be, for the inveterate reader, an apologia pro vita sua. For we who have spent so much of our lives with, and even for books secretly derived a sense of moral superiority from having done so. This is obvious from the fact that no one says “Young people nowadays do not read” in a tone other than of lament or, more usually, moral condemnation. A person who does not read—and for us reading means books—is a mental barbarian, a man who, wittingly or unwittingly, confines himself to his own experience, necessarily an infinitesimal proportion of all possible experiences. He is not only a barbarian, but an egotist.

We who pride ourselves in reading much and widely forget that the printed page serves us in a similar fashion as the drug serves an addict. After a short time away from it we grow agitated and begin to pine, by which time anything will do: a bus timetable, a telephone directory, an operating manual for a washing machine. “They say that life’s the thing,” said Logan Pearsall Smith, a littérateur of distinction but now almost forgotten, “but I prefer reading.” For how many of us—avid readers, that is—has the printed page been a means of avoidance of the sheer messiness, the intractability, of life, to no other purpose than the avoidance itself? It is for us what the telenovela is for the inhabitant of the Latin American barrio, a distraction and a consolation. We gorge on the printed page to distract ourselves from ourselves: the great business of Doctor Johnson’s life, according to Boswell and Johnson himself. Or we read to establish a sense of superiority, or at least to ward off a sense of inferiority: “What, you haven’t read Ulysses?”

* * *

An intellectual might be defined as someone who elaborates justifications for his own tastes and preferences, as metaphysics was once defined as the finding of bad reasons for what we all believe on instinct. And so the reader of books soon finds reasons for the supposed superiority of the printed page over the screen of the electronic device: for nothing stimulates the brain quite like the need for rationalization. The dullest of minds, I have found, works at the speed of light when a rationalization is needed.

The page of a book is aesthetically pleasing as a screen is not: except that many pages of many books are not aesthetically pleasing. It is easier to retrace one’s steps in a book than on a screen: but only for those who are not as technologically adept as the young now are. It is easier to annotate a page of a book than a page of a screen: but the same objection applies. It is easier to concentrate long and seriously on a book than on a screen: but there is no intrinsic reason to the medium why this should be so, any more than there is, pace the late Neil Postman, why television should be given over to vulgarity and trivia. We bibliophiles are reduced to finding bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.

* * *

Whether the book survives or not, I am firmly of the opinion that it ought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise. The heart has its beliefs that evidence knows not of. For me, to browse in a bookshop, especially a second-hand one, will forever be superior to browsing on the internet precisely because chance plays a much larger part in it. There are few greater delights than entirely by chance to come across something not only fascinating in itself, but that establishes a quite unexpected connection with something else. The imagination is stimulated in a way that the more logical connections of the Internet cannot match; the Internet will make people literal-minded.

– Anthony Daniels, “Loss & gain, or the fate of the book” (The New Criterion)


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