The book life 2


by Emilio DeGrazia | March 2, 2009 • As the heart’s suspicions congeal into the mind’s abstractions, words gain weight and go lame. Books are like people, heaviest when most dense. So forgive me, Dear Reader, if plain speech fails and I sound like a book.

Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona. All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.

It’s easy for book-lovers to romanticize the book and to lament its marginalization as a cultural force. Despite an impressive five hundred year run, the book is merely humanity’s first industrially produced mass medium, a crude invention by twenty-first century hi-tech standards. Since we like to say technology is Progress and Progress is good, we don’t spend much time gazing at like-new inventions dumped (with tons of books) into landfills. Nor do inventors and industrialists, who don’t like living near landfills. It normally takes crisis for us to remind ourselves that Progress is an infamous trickster with a sneaky habit of furiously swallowing itself, asymmetrically. So it’s easy to think of books as defunct.

And it’s almost unthinkable to imagine the book as a serpent with a potentially poisonous bite. Because I know of no cost analysis of the book as a mass produced industrial commodity, a study that assesses, say, how the book’s ecological and human costs compare to the automobile’s, it’s hard to prove that certain best-sellers have resulted in the clear-cutting of entire forests and the pollution of rivers that flow inevitably into my bloodstream too. And how do we really know if The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn poisons minds? As with any technological commodity for sale in the world, it’s hard to sort the good from the bad and to rein in the bad.

It’s hard to go back, especially when there are so many machines blocking the way.

In the beginning was the word, that is, speech. Based in biology rather than technology, the spoken word was the way knowing walked around, and speech seems to have served human evolution well enough for several hundred thousand years before the book appeared. When the book took charge it clamped down on its users’ speech, privatized knowing into a small affair involving mainly reader and page. It’s no accident that books are often read with blankets nearby, for reading is a chillier experience than facing off with words or chatting at café tables about the weather, politics and God. It’s only natural that the book’s prestige is highest in northern climates. The printing press was developed by people who live mainly indoor lives, the best and brightest of whom invent violent technologies that empower them to impose on dark-skinned people content to have mainly tribal rather than national identities. By world standards, books are not cheap to produce. They are made mainly by winners in societies for other winners, or for loser-wannabe winners. The Latin word legere, “to read,” has given us the words “literacy” and “legitimacy” but also the word “elite.” If books have given significant boosts to rising middle classes, historically they also have served the interests of kleptocracies that have put so-called “primitive” peoples in their service as workers and slaves. The book, in short, has been used as a lethal weapon against people who talk rather than read; it has been used and abused as the benchmark (as digital technology is today) of cultural, political, and even moral superiority.

Before the invention of the alphabet, myths floated freely from tribe to tribe by way of the spoken word. The invention of writing coincided with the rise of major patriarchal myths that are the basis for entrenched systems of power very difficult to challenge today. In ancient times priestly classes, privileged servants of emperors and kings, controlled the scrolls and libraries. Their sense of the world and of sacred words reflected their status as elites appointed to “legitimize”––that is, make binding in books of law––the authority of despots eager to align themselves with the prestige of learning and occult power of religion. The temples of learning that slaves labored to build were the priests’ palaces, monuments that added grandeur to their authority. As the book became an objet d’art too, a thing of beauty and priestly truth––such as those beautifully hand-painted by monks in the Middle Ages, meticulously crafted to show the glory of God and the Church––it was untouchable except by the few, its mysteries so obscure that, as object, it could inspire animistic awe. For the illiterate masses accustomed to talking to each other face-to-face the strange hieroglyphs of the printed page were as impossible to read as the mysterious ways of God.

The advent of the printing press cast a shadow on the authority structures represented by the medieval cathedral, and opened the doors leading to democracy’s untidiness. As Bela Balazs put it, “The word broke the stone into a thousand books” (“Der Sichtbare Mensch,” 1952). In more and more rapid succession books were turned out, each of them a new testament to the idea that everyone has a right to an opinion in a free marketplace of often bizarre notions often in conflict. The Holy Bible, its covers opening like church doors, welcomed pilgrims into a space made entirely of words. But here, where the imagination is tempted to freely play, not everyone has a right to an opinion, and all opinions decidedly are not equal. Though the historical record is vague about the process of cutting and pasting together the texts that resulted in the Old and New Testaments, an eclectic and disharmonious collection of writings spanning almost two thousand years, the Bible’s disparate voices and views narrowed into an omniscient narrator with His mind made up. As such the Good Book became a mystical icon, idol made of paper and print that trumps honest science and scholarship. Even today, in an era full of enough technological brilliance to send rockets into space, many people are spacey enough to believe that in the beginning was the Word (in Greek, o logos) and that this Word is literally the Bible itself, an actual book in all its versions, all its words.

Even though I studied Greek a couple years, much of the Good Book is Greek to me, especially the Hebrew parts. Devotees of three of the world’s great religions––Judaism, Christianity, and Islam––equally lay claim to being People of the Book subject to the loving ways of One God. But if the Bible’s clarity has always escaped me, so has the spiritual unity that has inspired a steady succession of holy wars among and between Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Much less can and should be said about professors like me who like to profess what they know about texts. Though no one has died yet in our current academic political correctness wars, quarreling factions in academe presided over by tenured professor-priests also find justification for power struggles in their favorite sacred texts. Do the professors contradict themselves as they hunt and peck their way through scriptures toward a verse providing justification for their views? These texts are large: They contain multitudes. If preachers like to make things up, especially when they’re telling us what their chosen scriptures mean, well, then, how do we doubt the professor explaining what Winnie the Pooh, Lolita, and Huckleberry Finn really mean? Texts, like beauty, often become lodged in the eye of the beholder, and books can be bloody useful for shooting down somebody else’s beliefs.

So if the book can empower and liberate it can also breed intolerance and calcify thought. The plastic arts, however fluid the materials from which they are made, tend to freeze models of reality. A devil carved in stone or painted on a wall hardens readily into a stereotype that lends itself to replication. But a devil in a story told around a campfire is shaped by the amorphous smoke in individual minds. Such devils as we dream seldom become idols to be worshipped or damned, until they are conformed to those carved in stone or painted on walls. Books intellectualize this process of stereotyping. If we’ve never seen a devil or witch in the flesh, we can open The Malleus Mallificorum, a fourteenth century volume, to find descriptions and classifications of the many forms witches and devils are said to assume. Some fifteen hundred years later William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel The Exorcist pictured Satan in such vivid terms that literal belief in the existence of devils among Americans increased a full 20%, in part because the popular book morphed Satan into a movie too. Of course, once books make perfectly vivid to us what devils and witches are, it becomes a lot easier to spot them in real life, tell them to go to hell, or burn them at the stake. The process is not unlike the one Hitler used following the publication of Mein Kampf, which in the 1930s challenged the Holy Bible for top place among best-sellers in many Christian lands. Hitler’s book made it absurdly clear how to tell Aryans from Jews, homosexuals, and socialists.

So where is the authority of books today? Has the wild proliferation of books in literate societies created an overpopulation of texts equally faceless and meaningless? Have the alleged wise cores of sacred texts melted away in the firepower of politics and campus canon wars? Do Bibles and Korans exist mainly as hearsay, the few phrases and images taken from them repeated ritually in the way poets in pre-literate times orally reiterated refrains necessary if a tribe was to remember important features of its mythical history? Scholars like to believe that exegesis saves. But maybe phrases like “Jesus saves” provide aural grounding for those who have little patience for the tedious linearity and daring imaginative leaps required by written texts. Are certain important books not texts to be rationally understood but mainly idols made of paper rather than stone, and endowed with the power to evoke ritual responses necessary to the bonding of communities?

Think too about how ruinous the book has been to our sex lives. How many married couples fall asleep every night with nothing more than an open book for a mate? Sex authorities James Thurber and E.B. White assert that when books came along “the whole order of things changed.”

To prepare for marriage, young girls no longer assembled
a hope chest––they read books on abnormal psychology.
If they finally did marry, they found themselves with a large
Number of sex books on hand, but almost no pretty underwear.
Most of them, luckily, never married at all––just continued
to read.

(Is Sex Necessary? 1950)

It takes no genius to imagine the historical devastation that results from having too much sex on the brain.

So are we better off because the printing press leaped like virginal Athena from somebody’s brain? Let me ask you this: As you listen to this rather bookish talk, what turns you on or off? When I sound like a book or when I sound like myself speaking directly to you? Do we not momentarily forfeit our power of speech as we read a book, and with it the human contact that accompanies speech? When a book speaks powerfully to us one-on-one, does its power dissipate when we have no one with whom to discuss the book? I often complain that TV and the computer have overwhelmed the book, privatized us into monitor gazers, and undermined our sociability and civility. Is the social consequence of the book as a technology similar, if less radical? Libraries have reading rooms where silence is enforced, but they don’t have talking rooms.

With this many strikes against it, is the book worth celebrating? Well, yes. The book deserves more than a quiet heartfelt cheer. Like a good argument the book stands up well against the strongest objections to it. As a medium the book is only as good as its authors, users and abusers, but the voices of millions of books constitute an ongoing and persistent cry against ignorance, violence and injustice, long after the voices, many of them victims, have been silenced. Thoreau is not valuable because he went to jail for his beliefs; his legacy endures because he wrote about what he believed. Those who wish to narrow or destroy the memorialization of the full diversity of evolving life routinely call for the banning and burning of books. Even as a commodified technology the book seems relatively benign. Like the sailboat, the book is undervalued by those who insist on speed. Any careful bookmaker will insist that a book, like a sailboat, is meant to be gazed at, handled, and felt, and that like the sailboat it does little violence to the settings where it is used. What I call the book life––that is, a way of life which makes books the mind and heart of experience––is vital because an individual book applies to the individual life the slow processes we see in naturally growing organisms. Books nurture us in the slow loving way mothers do. There is no hurrying through a good book, no speed-reading it. A book is slow food. To read a good book is to call time out, usually in a comfortable place––in a favorite chair, at the back table of a coffee shop, under a cottonwood in Hemlock Park, or better yet in bed, after we make love. From there we sail into the unknown, at our own slow pace. There is no frigate like a book.
Because there are so many books to choose from and so little time, we ought to choose carefully the ones we hope to carry us away. What follows is my Malleus Bibliocatalogus, my classification of book types. Beware of attaching any values to the types:

1. The book as popcorn to be enjoyed in the swallowing, especially behind sunglasses at a crowded beach. Incestuously coupled with Hollywood and TV, its passions enflamed by marketplace lusts, such a book offers pleasures secreted by an as yet undiscovered gland. People of the Book want to ban this kind of book from society in general if not from underneath their beds.

2. The book instructing us how to help ourselves. It’s clear that we all have a lot wrong with us, so we need such books to improve our bodies, diets, memories, marriages, and sex performances. Currently the bookshelves are crowded with ones full of advice about how to increase our spirituality and money with direct proportionality.

3. The book useful for reconstructing a vision of an idealized and largely mythical past. Such books, commonly poetical and heroic, articulate visions of authority structures. Sacred texts––Bibles and Korans––are the rocks against which the new waves of errant freethinkers, mainly women and other heretics, are to be dashed. Such books serve a deeply felt need to connect individuals lost in the swirl of modern relativities with a community of like-minded believers sharing the fantasy that a patriarchal past is ideal. These books tend to be anti-scientific and suspicious of diversity, some of them useful to the cheerleaders of violent crusades. They try to terrorize us, often by promising apocalypse, and tend to serve the interests of insecure leaders. Like cartoons they often picture the world in simplistic black and white terms that incite violence.

4. Books written by dreamy humanists, intellectuals, artists, and scientist-scholars seeking to promote an idealized future characterized by tolerance, greater freedom and equality, diversity, and technological progress. For them each new book makes a small contribution to human knowledge, adding, correcting, challenging, revising what we know in the continuing commitment to make life worth living. For the authors of these books the unexamined life is not worth living. For them the college campus, public library and science lab are the ideal spaces toward which the general society should evolve. Here the life of the mind plays itself out––quietly, humanely, rationally, and comfortably––in the service of a democratic politics intended to serve the general interests of a peacefully evolving global community that values and preserves local cultures.

5. And finally there is the book for those who look for themselves in books, not simply as generic characters in generic plots but as individuals required to do the human thing––discover the stories they’re living and those they would prefer to live. For these a book says, I am, this story I am reading is like mine, this poem speaks to my experience, this memoir is my history too. In the absence of good pillow or table-talk, we turn to such books to provide an intimate willing to engage in dialogue that keeps in motion the ongoing story we reinvent to make sense of our lives. Generally confusing our need to be heard with the world’s willingness to listen, a few of us succumb to the temptation to freeze our personal stories in print. We try writing our own book, or books, empowered by the liberation of creativity the blank page inspires. In this way we too say, I am. I have made my mark.

It is good to be in such interesting and passionate company, especially since the bullies book-lovers face are faceless and huge. Governments, multinational corporations, and media conglomerates have managed to standardize the information flow they control. Ignorance is strength. Good books tell the stories we never see on TV, especially the news.

Meanwhile, Johnny still can’t read. The nation’s lawmakers, uninspired by intimidated teachers who also grew up largely on TV, propose to solve Johnny’s reading problem by filling his classrooms with technology and tests. We know why Johnny can’t read. He comes home from school, watches four hours of TV, then turns on the computer and video games. For Johnny those black inkspots on a page we call words are an occult maze lined up in neat rows that go on and on page after page. Black and white. Silent and still. Slow. And boring in a culture that values speed.

To make sense of the black inkspots on the page of a book Johnny must activate his own image-making power, his imagination. The video screen imposes no such demand. The images are manufactured, by those who have sufficient capital to produce them, mainly on expensive machines. Full authority, authorship of the images passing before Johnny, resides in the machine, ghostwritten by nameless programmers limited to binary calculations. With mouse and remote in hand like figments of Zeus’s thunderbolts, Johnny can try satisfying the demands of his hungry heart and mind, pointing and clicking his way through life. When the screen flashes a small disturbance of the mind, the remote gets rid of it. In all the visual noise that flashes past Johnny’s eyes, natural curiosity and creativity devolve into neurotic stimulation that exhausts itself eventually into narrow belief. When the remote feels small and inadequate, the hand, deaf to the whisperings of head and heart, says shoot first and ask questions later. Johnny awaits the day he will be able to point and click at the refrigerator, require it bring the whole supermarket to his sofa, fresh from wherever food comes from. His well-paying job will require only that he point and click. With his remote he will have nothing but control. He will never fight in any of the wars he helps nod into being. He will point and click to see how well they’re going. And he will win every war without seeing how slowly actual blood seeps into actual soil. It will not occur to him to wash his hands of that blood.

The screens flicker imperceptibly as eyes grow big, and lights dim as the windows to the world get small. Images, all of them carefully calculated to make a momentary stir, blitz the brain. The images are spectacular, cunning, sexy, beautiful too in their way. Irresistible. They do not stand still long enough to be fully seen or studied. They offer stimulation, require more stimulation, and show off their flashy colors as they go speeding by. Their engine outraces the mind, memory, and conscience, paralyzing them with confusion. How can static words on a page compete?

So Johnny can’t read. And Johnny, too slow to talk back to the racing TV images, is speechless too.

The book life makes us aliens in Johnny’s world. The book lies limp and dead in our hands, waiting for us to bring it alive as we write in our minds the book we read. The imagination must be equal to the task, challenge the abstract ink spots on the page to come alive and talk to us. We’re told that a picture is worth a thousand words, but how many pictures are there in a few lines of Blake’s poetry:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appals
And the hapless Soldiers sigh,
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

We know, because we read books, that either we control language or language will control us. This is the most important lesson a book life provides. People die and kill because of words. Others are made whole by literacy. The worlds we enter when we read are awash in words, challenging us over and over to structure and clarify our sense of life. A good book challenges us to become authorities, authorizers, and authors able to perform the creative processes the gods once upon a time reserved for themselves. This is the vital passage of power the book provides. When we read we authorize ourselves and the world, give things names, meaning, and shape. In this way we come to the basis of the only knowledge available to us––an understanding of the world as wonderful miracle in motion being constantly revised, re-envisioned, by creative minds. Because no reader enters the same stream twice, every book provides passage into a mysteriously expanding unknown we’ve earned. There’s no need to rush: There’s plenty of time to talk back, plenty of time for the book to read me. And what does a good book say as it stares at me? It asks me if I’m telling the truth. Am I seeing the nature of the fact-filled world? Am I escaping complication by denying it, seeing into the holes of the structures on which I’m building my life? Is my ignorance earned, and therefore more wise? Am I allowing strange voices to tell their stories to me, allowing otherness to speak its mind? A good book keeps asking me if I’m telling the truth. The best books tell us that the truth will make us free, mainly, if not only, in the quiet small space book and reader share so that one day they may also revive a very useful old-fashioned thing, speech, with another interesting person face-to-face.