Books*

This is a meditation on books. I'm not sure it really has an argument. Unlike a book.

I have spent my life surrounded by books. Students often remark on how many books I have in my office, although in truth I have no more than most of my colleagues. At home there are books on the floor, books in stacks by the bed, books shelved in front of and on top of other books. I have, literally, more books than I will ever be able to read, and yet I keep buying more books. Just yesterday I purchased even more books so as to have the materials to begin writing yet another book.

I don't have to write another book; I could spend the rest of my career publishing articles and giving talks. But somehow this thought simply does not satisfy, and not only because it is unlikely that I would ever be promoted to full professor (at least in History) solely on the strength of articles. I want to write another book just as much as I want to read all the books I have collected. There is something so very real about a book, sitting there on the shelf, its cover pressed up against the covers of the books on either side.

Books, quite literally, have weight and solidity. Sometimes, sitting among my books, I feel slightly depressed, they are so very heavy and numerous, but most of the time, I am reassured by their presence. They define me, the books I have read; you can read the history of my thinking in the arrangement of their titles. Without my books, I am not sure I really exist. It is as if, by spending so much time with them, I have put something of myself--and not just my handwriting--into them.

Why, then, do I feel so anxious about making another one? I suppose, in a way, because books do feel so magical for me. I don't quite believe that I can produce one. They are something that one buys in a bookstore, not something--like a blog--that one can just write. There is something forbiddingly fixed about a book, and yet I know that the words came to their authors in exactly the same way that these words are coming to me, sometimes painfully, sometimes fluidly, but all one at a time. Just in my blog posts this summer, I have actually written enough words to count as a book. But a blog is not a book, just as a lecture is not an article.

Frustratingly, somehow, just thinking about books and the thought of writing another, my writing has become more stilted and formal. Books seem to demand a different kind of voice from the one that I would normally use. I have even made notes for what I want to say in this post, much as I would for something I was planning to write for my book. And it isn't working. Sigh. Okay, so I'm going to try to write this in the way that I usually write these posts, just thinking and arguing with myself as I write.

You see why it is so important to make multiple drafts of something before you publish it as a book. Sometimes the words just don't come the first time. You are thinking about an idea that you want to give stable form, yet it dies as you try to put it onto the page. Somewhere under all this compost is a living idea, somewhere in the midst of all the books on my shelves is something I actually want to say that has not been said in all those other books, even in the ones that I have not yet read. But I am struggling to find it.

Part of the problem is precisely thinking of books as something other than just a carrier for one's words. But then books are artifacts in a way blog posts and letters simply are not. One person can write a book, but it takes whole rooms of people and machinery to print one. It's sometimes not even clear whether the publishers care what the books actually say, at least not in the sense of what it means to write or read them. It is enough to have words to set into type and print out onto the paper and bind. Would a book be a book if it were simply gibberish? Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet...

Presses at the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerpen

Ah, at last I come to the heart of the problem. I am entranced by the physical form of the book. I am jealous when I go to the bookstore and see authors who have filled a shelf with their books, while I have only two. I want another of those beautiful objects with my name on it, paper between covers, print on the page. And yet, what difference does it make whether I have published one book or ten? No one can read more than one book at a time. Who reads every book an author writes?

This is like looking at my hands while I type or at my feet while I walk. The more I think about books as books--things on my shelf, objects that I might somehow make--the less I am able to say about them. It is the old tension between form and content: do we look at the exterior fact of the book's physical existence or do we think about the argument or story that the words are trying to convey? It is a trap for authors and artists, wanting to have written or have painted, wanting the thing to exist now. But the thing cannot come into being while we are looking at it; I cannot write a book while thinking about wanting a book to put on my shelf.

This is actually a very real tension in the project I am working on. Am I trying to write about books of Hours as things that one owns, holds in one's hands, keeps in a bag, wills to one's heirs? Or am I trying to write about them as experiences of composition and reading? No, that's not even it. We know what it meant to produce and consume books of Hours, and we know a great deal now about the experience of writing and reading. I want to get at something else. And yet, it does matter that the books are physical objects and it does matter how immersed one is as one reads.

Books fascinate me; I am certain that every book that I pick up contains great secrets, even if I have read it before. I want to write about books of Hours because it seems to me that late medieval readers had this sense of their books, that books were windows into another experience more profound than the usual "books are journeys" claim that every poster in the children's section of the bookstore makes. Just holding a book in my hands makes me happy. I love the feel of a book that fits easily into my hand as much as the great weight of a book I can read supported only by a desk.

My colleagues have written so much about this experience, it is difficult to know what else one can say. There are books upon books about the printing and purchase and reading of books. Catalogs of all the books printed by a particular publisher; studies of how many books what classes of people in what century read. Among the books I bought yesterday was yet another study of how reading enables the cultivation of a particular kind of interior self. And yet, for me, all of these studies still somehow miss the point.

Look at the way in which the woman in this picture* holds her book: it is a precious object, but it is also something that one uses for something other than itself. It is not just a thing to admire with one's gaze, but something which one somehow incorporates into oneself. I have been reading this week about how paintings such as this one were intended to depict the experience of prayer. The book is a catalyst for the vision that the orator has. Reading is a catalyst for meditation.

But everybody who has ever picked up a book knows this. It is the wonder of books. They are like drugs, something to which one becomes addicted, witness the problem I have with making space on my shelves. I need all of these books and not just because I need the information in them. And yet, I worry what will become of all of my books when I've died. I have stacks of my father's books piled on the tops of our bookcases at home and there are boxes and boxes of his books still in storage, three years after he died. If books are just things, I should be able to sell them. But that seems like selling something of his soul.

To make a book is to change the world. It is to bring into being something that has not existed before and will not exist without one's labor. It is an artifact that can be bought and sold, but it is also an experience that is independent of its particular physical form.

As I stood there in the bookstore yesterday, looking over all of the books that others have written, what was I looking for? Insight into other people's thoughts? Information about something that I want to know? Was it encouraging or disappointing not to find books on the things that I am thinking about? Both--and, somehow, neither. What impressed me most was how strange it is for one's thoughts, otherwise so evanescent, to be able to assume physical form. No wonder books are so mysterious. If only I could find the words to explain how. But, then, presumably that is why there are so many books. No one really has, so we have to keep making more.

*Picture credit: Master of the Legend of St. Lucy, Virgo inter Virgines (1489), Brussels Museum of Ancient Art

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