On the Incarnation of Words

It goes without saying that the greatest pleasure of books is in the reading of them. The reader who has learned to appreciate the exhilaration and heartbreak of Charles Dickens; the vibrancy of life and sweeping human vision of Leo Tolstoy; the human drama and poetic insight of Shakespeare; the whimsical humor of P. G. Wodehouse—he has these pleasures to nourish his youth and to solace his old age.

But this pleasure of reading a book is attended and accentuated by things about books which do not directly have to do with reading itself. I am thinking here of the physical aspect of books. It is something we don’t talk or think about too much anymore in this age of the internet and digital text.

People like me who are bookish somehow have it in their heads that words take on greater value when rendered into physical form. That is why many of us prefer a real, physical book to, say, an eBook, and are prouder of our physical libraries than the collection of eBooks we have on our Kindles.

I can remember many times when I have shown off my library to guests. I had an NBC Nightly News crew in my home several years back, and when they saw my library they took their camera and panned the stacks. One of them (I believe she had been an English major) said something like, “You must have books from every important writer who ever existed.” I affected a knowing look and solemnly said, “Quite possibly.”

If I had told them how many audiobooks I had on my smartphone, it wouldn’t have had the same effect.

Those of us who love books tend to think that the writing or printing of them in some way commemorates the ideas they express. This is why we think that the better and more important the words of the book, the better the book itself should be. I have a lot of paperback books, and for most books that are published, that is just fine. But when it comes to the really great books, it seems more appropriate that their physical expression should match the greatness they express.

In his great work Moby Dick, Herman Melville makes a similar point:

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? … Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me … Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk.

He argues here that the greatness of his style should be commensurate with the greatness of his subject. But could this be true, not just of the heavy style of the words, but of their physical manifestation? Is there not some important similitude in the fact that the book, Moby Dick, should also be physically heavy?

My copy of The Awakening of Miss Prim, a somewhat light and charming book, is physically light and charming. That is as it should be. But my copy of Plato’s Collected Dialogues, heavy and rich in content, is itself heavy and rich in size and appearance. The same is true of my copy of Aristotle’s Complete Works. My copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is an imposing, blue, clothbound volume, with dignified illustrations to match the exalted text. Its tangible form is a work of art worthy of the beauty of the words.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace should be heavy: If it were not, the universe would be thrown out of balance.

It is not that it is wrong to buy a paperback copy of a Shakespeare play or The Brothers Karamazov. I once bought a paperback copy of Moby Dick because the introduction was Irving Howe’s great essay on Melville’s masterpiece—the essay that convinced me it was a truly great book and that I should read it. And yet even now I am eyeing a nice hardbound edition of Melville’s classic, not because I will necessarily read it again, but just because it deserves to be between beautiful covers.

The physicality of a book is, to a book lover, one of its virtues. For at least two millennia we have seen the physical act of writing as a kind of embodiment. Our thoughts are rendered more significant by being incarnated on the written page.

There is what philosophers would call a phenomenology to a physical book unachievable by anything purely digital. We tend to think abstractly about language—”It is the thought,” we say, “that matters.” When Marshall McLuhan uttered his famous maxim, “The medium is the message,” he invoked the principle that the form something takes cannot be divorced from its content. It is not just what is said that matters, but how—and, we could add, on what—it is said.

McLuhan’s maxim is only another version of one of Aristotle’s central principles. Aristotle said that anything that exists in the world must have both form and matter. This same idea can be seen in the opening chapters of Genesis, where God creates the world by forming its structure and filling it with material things. The act of creation, in other words, necessarily involves physicality, a principle that is made problematic in digital information, which is material only in the barest sense.

Words expressed in a physical book give a kind of benediction to the paper on which they are printed, and their having been printed bestows some greater ontological significance to their meaning. The words and the physical book that contains them form a sort of union, a union which, once sundered, results in a loss.

And yet all this—the love of physical books, and the trouble we take with them—does not make much sense in light of our modern tendency to see value in things only in terms of their practical utility. The utilitarian philosophy of life dictates that we should do those things that are most practically useful. In this view, convenience and efficiency are the watchwords.

A true book lover is not bothered by the lack of convenience of going to the bookstore or the problem of obtaining the book once he gets there. In fact, we only invoke convenience and efficiency on the things that we find least desirable. When it comes to the things we most like to do, these considerations are beside the point, and, in many cases, detrimental altogether. We take time with the things that we like. We fuss over them needlessly.

If you love books, going to a bookstore was never a matter of convenience or efficiency. The best bookstore was never the one nearest my home. In fact, I will go long distances to get to a good bookstore. And a good bookstore was never the one I spent the least amount of time in. In fact, quite the opposite. I will spend hours in a good bookstore, and the length of time I am willing to spend there is a measure of how good it is.

Going to the bookstore is a ritual, a pilgrimage.

I think the decline of the bookstore is related to the decline of the road trip. You go on a road trip because getting there is half the fun. I go to a good bookstore because the effort expended in finding a book is part of why I do it.

My wife used to give me a hard time about taking side roads on our annual trip from our home in Kentucky to my mother’s farm in Kansas. She would say, “If we took the interstates, it would take only ten hours to get there.” I would look at her and say, “Yes, but it would be ten hours of boredom. Taking the side roads may take five hours longer, but the drive is pleasurable. Under what circumstances would I choose ten hours of boredom over fifteen hours of pleasure?”

She has since been cured of her addiction to efficiency and convenience. Being married to me, she claims, necessitates it. And she now thanks me for taking the side roads and enjoys them as much as I do.

When we go to the beach on a warm summer day, do we bring a stopwatch to see how fast we can swim in the waves, walk on the beach, and sun ourselves?

And, of course, the best life is not necessarily the shortest.

I would far rather take my time living a pleasurable life than speeding through an efficient one.

A book lover not only cherishes individual books, but knows that two books—even if they are the very same edition—are different from one another. Each has a different history and personality.

I have a copy of Wendell Berry’s The Way of Ignorance which the author gave me as a gift. He inscribed it, “To Martin Cothran—for kind help and good company, many thanks, Thanksgiving, 2005.”

Having your Kindle signed by the author of one of the books it contains would not only be physically difficult, but conceptually impossible. Signing a book requires that there be a book—an individual, singular, solitary thing. A digital book has no history, no permanence. It has no personality.

When I read a book, I annotate it. I summarize each page at the top. I write notes in the margin. I even draw pictures in it. In doing so, I make it mine.

A young woman I work with, about my own children’s age, loves books as much as I do. Every few days I will stop by her desk and ask her what she is reading. In the course of our conversations, I will often mention some book I just read, one she has read too. She will say, “Oh, I love that book!” When she says this, she will hold her arms to herself, as if she was actually holding the book. I think this is not insignificant, that when we have a true love for something, our very gestures should suggest a real, physical thing.

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