An infallible test: books or persons?

martinbubergrIn 1947, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote an essay called “Books and Men.” Here is a relevant excerpt about this essay from Donald J. Moore’s Martin Buber: Prophet of Religious Secularism:

Here we have a simple and meaningful insight into the humanity of Martin Buber, into his deep love and respect for the human person. He speaks of a choice between books and people. He admits that in his early years he most certainly would have chosen books, but in his later years he realized this would be less and less the case. It is not that his experiences with people have been so much better than his experiences with books; “on the contrary, purely enjoyable books even now come my way far more often than purely enjoyable persons.” Both have gifts to share, but in the end it is a question of love. “I reverence books . . . far too much to be able to love them. But in the most revered of living persons I always find more to love than to reverence.”

Buber concludes the short essay with this pointed analogy:

Here is an infallible test. Think of yourself in a situation where you would be alone, completely alone on earth, and you could be given one of the two, books or persons. I often hear some people prizing their solitude, but they can do that only because there are still persons somewhere in the world, even though at a great distance. I knew nothing of books when I came from the womb of my mother, and I shall die without books, with another human hand in my own. Even now, to be sure, I sometimes close the door to my room and surrender myself to a book, but only because I can again open the door and see a human being looking at me.

This brief memoir speaks for itself. It underscores so clearly one of Buber’s fundamental insights: “All real living is meeting.” The intellectual and spiritual stimulation provided by books was valued by Buber; his was a life dedicated to scholarly pursuits; scholarship and writing was exceeded by the importance of his contacts with the world and with other human beings. Buber realized that for himself he could achieve authentic existence only in loving encounter with God and with other persons. He was a person rooted in this world, in the specific and demanding possibilities of each lived moment. He was a person who savored the precious value and limitless possibilities which are open to us in every hour of life.


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