CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Packing My Library
Every day when I step out of my home to walk through the streets of my little Brooklyn neighborhood, I come upon boxes of books outside entranceways, on walls, and at the curb between garbage bags. Sometimes one box. Sometimes half a dozen. The houses with their stiff façades of brick and brownstone are steadily, inexorably disgorging their books. Coughing up volumes of D. H. Lawrence and Loire-region travel guides. Spewing Edith Wharton and Chinese cooking secrets. Vomiting old histories of Middle Eastern politics. The houses are terribly sick—bloated, congested, sclerotic—and they have undertaken a book cleanse. Some bright Sunday I expect to find the sidewalks buried in shiny paperbacks and tattered old hardcovers. Will I be able to wade through them? How deep will the book flood become?
Encountering a particularly huge regurgitation of literature, I glance up at the windows of the house from which it originated, wondering what happened inside to bring on this vast discharge. But the rooms are always still and dark. Always! Shouldn’t some great commotion signal that a crisis has come upon this residence? Shouldn’t, at the least, curtains be fluttering and cats be jumping for their lives? Are the inhabitants of these houses dead? Are the little unlit pyres of books before their doors announcements of mourning? How did I miss the moment when it was determined that the laying out of books before one’s house would indicate a corpse within?
It’s true I might have noticed the change in how these displays came to be treated by passersby. As recently as a few years ago, evicted books were extremely rare. Whenever some appeared, they were mobbed by book lovers competing with heavy elbows, sharp nails, and sober faces. No one could have suspected then that the expulsion of printed matter signified anything other than the fitness of the houses and their inhabitants; cups or leeches had been applied to bursting shelves for a tiny, tonic bleed. There could be no compunction about feasting on so sanguine an emission. But now I never see a solitary soul rifling through the contents of the boxes. And when I happen to be walking with others down the streets, and my steps reflexively slow, lingering before the abandoned books, I fall behind my companions, who stare at me in aggravation, disappointed by my atavistic dawdling.
“Haven’t I learned yet?” their looks exclaim. “These things are the consequence of a morbidity. Consider them symptoms. Not ‘books’ as I might once have understood the word. Clawing through the boxes is like clawing at the wounds of someone sprawled across the stones. There is nothing left to take from them except pathogens.”
I blush and hurry after my friends. Now I’ve internalized the shame; even when I’m alone with these discarded books I don’t spend a fraction of the time I would have done not long ago. Smuggling one or two relics away, I burn with guilt. Whether I feel I’m ransacking a tomb or merely fiddling with medical waste, the effect on my conscience is the same.
Granted, in calmer moments I understand the inevitability of these disgorgements. How choked with clutter our homes have grown! We don’t have room for so many objects and that’s all there is to it. Now behind the walls all is exquisitely spare and free. Light enters rooms the way God sweeps into an open heart: without knocking. The purgation of books could mark the rise of an inspiring religiosity. Only a hopeless skeptic would insist that where those books once lay there can be no true emptiness.
But I can’t help wondering what does reside in the places where books formerly sprawled or towered. Simply as a matter of forensic bookkeeping, we ought to have photographs of all the sites from which books have been extracted. Why be afraid of what we might discover? We have nothing to hide. Books hide things. They have covers. Screens reveal creation’s secrets in a constant flow, like blood issuing from a throat: And this is the universe. And this is your interior. And this is the end of nostalgia. And this is nostalgia. And this is your memory of being closed. And this is your forgetfulness. And this is your dream of someone’s hands opening you, as if you were a book they could not wait to read.
Some time ago I visited a forgotten printer’s shop by the river. Everything was deadly still, and sky came through the dust-caked windows in weak gray shifts of luminescence. A dozen high, black Linotype presses rose up around the room: beautiful monsters dredged from the deep; upended grand pianos made of iron and threaded with belts, hooks, and blades. I drew open one of the tiny drawers in a narrow wooden filing cabinet that flanked the Linotypes, running my fingers over the hundreds of mats, flattened brass teeth punched with characters. The monumental wooden shelves opposite held the metal magazines, shaped like infant coffins, which fed the mats into the channels that threaded the maze. Long brushes and hooks hung on the walls. Metal bars of lead lay in jumbled heaps beneath.
I sat down on a scarred wooden chair. After a time, the Linotypes lifted up off the ground in synchrony, beginning to waltz in slow motion through space. They dipped and spun. Under the floating machines blew whirling galaxies, comet showers created by the silver splattered across the cement floor—the spill and spray of melted lead, tin, and antimony from thousands of slug castings.
What is a book?
Is there any meaning now in Dr. Johnson’s plain-sense definition of the book as a volume in which to read or write? Or in the defining shift from scroll to codex? The monastic scriptoria? Or the first moment when an unsigned manuscript received the scribal colophon? Is one bound to turn further back to the dried palm leaves of India, the stretched hides of Babylonia, the birch bark of Kashmir, the papyrus of Alexandria? The animal-vegetable uteral pulp from which the ancestors of all our libraries first crawled; a single sheet of pressed plant fiber multiplying, becoming lapped and pasted, needle stitched, quire to quire, folding forward and back in sequenced chains? Liber: bark, akin to leaf. Liber: an ancient God of wine and vineyards. Liber: a book. Līber: free. Who now can abide the craftsman’s notion of the book as that thing best suited to the circumstances of a given act of reading—an object of a size and type that fit proportionately to hand, pocket, or lectern? Who can support Bouchot’s classification of the book as “the most faithful reflection of its time” and “the child of painting,” a microcosm of all aspects of preceding generations? Or Gregory the Great’s definition of statues as books for the illiterate? Or the ancient idea of the Book of Nature? Or descriptions of the book as the human voice in exile from the tongue? Or the commercial house’s claim that a book is what gets printed and bound at its expense—a surrogate for bank notes—a gilded cage for vagrant utterances? Even the flights of the old Kabbalists no longer answer: those obscure scholars proclaiming the Book of Books to be a fabric woven entirely of the Tetragrammaton, the four letters of God’s name—picturing the book as the body of the Divine; the instrument through which God created the Universe; a primal chaos of letters that take on sentenced form as each incident in the scheme of sacred history unfolds; black fire on white fire; a configuration of letters that arranges itself anew six hundred thousand times, once for each soul of the people; a cosmos in moveable type; a language that cannot be read, spoken, or written; a vision of consciousness transcribed into an object that can be held in the palms like a face awaiting yours, like a bird that trusts your hands to at last release again.
In newsreels of the burnings at Berlin’s Opera Square, when the books are hurled, they spread their covers, pages flapping above the bindings’ spines, appearing for an instant to take wing aloft the whipping shrouds of flame, then vanishing.
When children curl into a book we see the nostalgic forms to which they’re drawn incarnated. For whereas all electronic devices point outward to the world, inverted funnels made of sonic gloop and flashes, the open book closes in around them, blocking light and sound, encircling them like the arms of a parent who might hold them still, after the end.
Where can the book go from here? It stands nervously before us, trailing dust and spider threads. Soundless as a snail without a shell. Occasionally seized, ravished, then flung down again. Everyone screams at it to transubstantiate! Book hears the ten thousand changes rushing by its locked geometry. And still Book hesitates. You do not need to clamp words in your clam jaws any longer, Book. You have no right to do so. Let all words streak invisibly through space. Let the words go, Book!
And Book does not even try to defend itself. Book stands there in the darkness not even breathing, just waiting. Book is a shrub without leaves or even branches. All you know how to do is wait, Book! You graven idol of perpetual expectancy! You crypt with nothing in it. You cruel, animal-skinned slaughterhouse of trees! You make me want to kick and tear and cut you, Book, you—you shape in the way of everything real! Book, you are the reason we are evolving so slowly as a species, Book! How dare you steal the future from our children, Book! Book! Open your cover! Say something, Book! You are not even worth destroying! You do not even deserve to be called an object. Only an obstacle! An obsolete! An obverse of this universe! You lie there so passively. Like you want to be hurt. You make me think of some dead sheep, stripped of all its fleece, then carved into a bloodless, heavy shadow of our most private being. You genitalless genital without a body, brain, or anything beyond a name! All names and nothing named, Book! Book, you wear me out until I feel my own spine come unbound. Book, you make the pieces of me fall out upon the ground. Book, you rub me until I am illegible. Book, you have left us missing pages of our own selves!
Oh, Book—forgive me! Where will you go now? I’m so sorry you have no home, Book. Please do not look so hopelessly pathetic, Book. Poor Book, waiting for nothing and forgetting how to be. Please, Book. What will you do? Tell me … If I can help you—if there is some … How I once loved you, my little musty storyweight. Can’t all Books work together and … if you all act as one, Book—Book, you make me feel miserable. Book, stop looking so forlorn and old. Can’t you buy a little island and make yourself a country, Book? Where no one will make you feel unwanted or tormented? I will give you money for this property, Book. Many people might unite to buy you a home way out at sea. Protected from the waves by walls and from the sun by metal ceilings. Would you like that, Book? A thick little metal house for you and all your family in the farthest ocean? Or a big capsule that would shoot you beyond the atmosphere so you might orbit Earth forever? Book, I’m trying to help. I do love you, Book, still. Still, Book. Your ending will not come to me.
George Prochnik’s most recent book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, was published by Other Press in May. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The LA Review of Books, Bookforum, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere. He is editor at large for Cabinet magazine.