The sense and sensibility of book lovers
There are few creatures who deserve to be viewed with as much suspicion as the self-professed book lover. Those whose sensibilities are so universal, or fickle, that they include both the sublime and execrable are more Marianne than Elinor and their opinions are best regarded from the safety of scepticism. Fortunately, though, such people are rare. Most of those who call themselves book lovers would be more accurately described as lovers of reading – which is no guarantee of a more sensible embrace but it is almost invariably a more manageable one.
The other possibility is that they use the term as the only way they are able to describe the inexplicable feeling of reverence for books that much of humankind has developed.
We have an emotional connection to books that we don’t have to many other inanimate things. Most of us have heard at some time or another someone express horror at the mere thought of destroying or destructively defacing a book (excluding scribbling in the margins – which is more a mark of honour and commitment to a book rather than being vandalism – and its close relative, book graffiti, an interesting though somewhat under-appreciated art form.)
It is generally accepted that demonstrating such wanton disregard for books is the mark of a philistine, or at best, a less sensitive soul. Books are held to be treasures, to be preserved and respected at all costs. The reverence for the form seems unique to books. We don’t seem to hold music in such high regard, for instance. Many of those same people would not miss a night’s sleep if it were announced that all traces of a particular type of music had suddenly been erased from the earth. Most people would think it a problem of your temper and not your soul if you bought a CD, listened to it, decided you hated it and proceeded to break it into little pieces. If you burnt a book you didn’t like, those same people would most likely view you with the same horror as if you had strangled a kitten.
Far from being a defender of culture or history or just humanity as a whole, the person who is indiscriminately precious about books is, in fact, a danger to them, for when we fail to discriminate we fail to appreciate just why books can be something to be held in high regard. We end up honouring the good and the bad equally, or worse, come to justify the execrable by finding arguments to raise it to greater heights. Nonetheless, press any book lover and they will tell you that they are well aware that it is the content not the form that matters most. Yet the feeling remains that somehow deliberately destroying a book is just wrong.
There was a time when books were inherently precious, when they meant something different to what they mean now. They were the the way we preserved ideas, history and the beauty of language. When the library at Alexandria was burned, first and foremost it was the knowledge that was lost that made it a tragedy; Seneca estimated that about 40,000 manuscripts were lost. Many of those books were unique, the sole repositories of the ideas, the study and the inspirations of our forebears. Secondly, though, part of our dismay is that literature and learning are so often victims of human folly (mainly the folly of war), and somehow, being collateral damage the destruction seems worse.
Things are different now. Today, it would be hard for all copies of a book perish and for the world to have no trace of it. if every copy of a given book were to spontaneously combust and disappear from shops, libraries and homes, it is highly likely that there would still be a digital copy somewhere, even if it was just the printer’s pdf. It wouldn’t be a tragedy at all. The library at Alexandria has been replaced by the countless servers around the world.
Books are a commercial commodity, no different from a bar of soap or a tin of baked beans. The majority are churned out without regard to quality or originality. Most leave little residue in our consciousness and few create any discernible change in the reader. The truth is that if all copies of all books by 90% of people writing today were to simultaneously combust, humankind would be no poorer for it.
Of course, I don’t wish that to happen. I am merely making the point that books hold a peculiarly precious place in our sensibilities. Correspondingly, so does the act of reading. It is not uncommon for someone – be they parent, politician, teacher or librarian – to defend a popular book of dubious quality by saying that at least it gets children to read. Now, quite apart from the fact that this is never supported by anything other than anecdotal evidence, it’s a silly stance to take. You would never expect a politician, parent, teacher or nutritionist to praise fast food simply because it at least makes fussy eaters eat. I’m not so sure why we are less discerning about what we feed our brains than what we feed our bodies.
Things are different now that we have entered the age of digital books. Pressing the Delete key and destroying a book doesn’t seem as barbaric as tossing one on the fire. Yet, both are replaceable, though the digital one is considerably cheaper to do so.
There is a reason, of course, why we feel compelled to be so protective about books, and lump them all together, the good and the atrocious, as precious commodities. Many things represent the strivings, the dreams, the heights of achievement of which humankind is capable. Only books, though, are our record of those things, and how they came to be. Books, even before Gutenberg made them a common intellectual currency, represent not just ideas but the access to them. Books are captured ideas, a great many of them by no means tamed. Libraries, then, are our thought zoos.
Thought and ideas drive us. All tyrants, benign or otherwise, have understood that if one is going to fire up the ovens in which to incinerate people, the best kindling to use is books. In the modern world, burning books is a necessary precursor to burning people. Burning books – literally, or figuratively by banning them – anaesthetises both mind and soul so that our stupidity won’t offend us, and our inhumanity doesn’t pain us.