Wednesday, October 12, 2016

When books become something else

Sometimes books are more than just books. Sometimes they become something else. During those periods of history when books have been piled high and burned, those books were symbols for hated people or ideas. Books can be used for decorative purposes or to give their owners an intellectual air, whether or not the books have ever been read. Books, unlike e-books, can also serve utilitarian functions. Last night, for example, my wife and I watched some slides from the 1970s, and I used a book to prop up the projector. Here are some other examples of when books become more than just books.

Books as a harem

James Salter
James Salter makes this suggestion is his introduction to Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves. He writes, "The bibliophile is, after all, like a sultan or khan who has countless wives already but another two or three are always irresistible." Of course, he could also have compared the bibliophile to the billionaire who just wants a few million more or the football coach with a 30-point lead with three minutes left in the game who wants another touchdown. Those who have want more. This analogy speaks to me as I consider my stacks and stacks of unread books yet still desire a few more for my harem, er, library.

Books as toys

"I like to play with my books, to mark them up, to give them a lived-in look," Joe Queenan writes in One for the Books. "I like to stack them up on the shelf and move them about and rearrange them according to new parameters -- height, color, thickness, provenance, publishers, author's nationality, subject matter, likelihood that I will ever read them. Then I put them back the way they were." I may not play with my books in the same way Queenan does, but still I know what he is talking about. Reading books are not the only way in which they give pleasure.

Books as sacred objects

Joe Queenan
Queenan also says this, "People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, and not merely an electronic version, are in some sense mystics. We believe that the objects themselves are sacred, not just the stories they tell. We believe that books possess the power to transubstantiate, to turn darkness into light, to make being out of nothingness." It is probably not a coincidence that most major, and even minor, religions have holy books. I wouldn't go so far as to call all books sacred objects, yet there can often be something mystical about them. Authors all die, yet their ideas, the images produced in their minds, live on in their books.

Books as friends and lovers

"A person's relationship with books does not remain static throughout his life," Queenan writes. A relationship? With a book? Well, yes. I can recall writing a couplet in college that went something like this: "My friend, the book/Holds my hand on cold nights." Not all readers are lonely introverts, but many are, and to them favorite books can be viewed as friends and/or lovers with whom one holds conversations.

Because of the relationship one forms with books, they can be hard to part with. But Queenan also observes, "Sometimes even the most loyal reader may feel a need to part company with a writer he once admired greatly. It is almost as if one is picking a fight, looking for an excuse to bit an old lover goodbye."

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