Do Books Matter?

We’re a strange group of people—us readers, we bookish types. And writers know which side their bread is buttered on. Without readers, writers would have little reason to exist, which is why I’ve often felt that there’s something a bit obvious or pander-y about books-about-books. Reading a book about the delights of reading, being a reader, or the reading life can feel similar to viewing a very flattering portrait of yourself.

Reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book was no exception. On one hand, her book celebrates and honors the value of libraries holding space for the public, all of it, becoming places of safekeeping not only for physical tomes and human knowledge but also for humans themselves. In purely social terms for people living in our towns and cities, this is an important service.

But it’s also a book about loving books, and Orlean knows that her audience—like herself—will shudder at the thought of books lost, books burning, books destroyed and gone forever. She herself decided to burn a book to see how it felt and her discomfort became an entry point to declaiming the vitality of books:

“The sensation of dropping a living [plant] into the trash is what makes me queasy. To have that same feeling about a book might seem strange, but this is why I have come to believe that books have souls—why else would I be so reluctant to throw one away? It doesn’t matter that I know I’m throwing away a bound, printed block of paper that is easily reproduced. It doesn’t feel like that. A book feels like a thing alive in the moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press—a lifeline that continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: they take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books ‘the potency of life.’ I wasn’t sure I had it in me to be killer.” (56)

It’s not that I don’t agree with Orlean here, in her deep respect for and even superstitious belief in the life of books. It’s just that there’s something sort of self-congratulatory about elevating and imbuing with so much meaning that which we create. This near-narcissism is perhaps the fatal flaw in the Humanities (of which I am a passionate proponent, hence the rub).

I have been fascinated by variations on this theme lately, on how we humans create entirely our own realities, how we decide what to elevate and what to abject. A mile or a pound or a gallon are not measurements that exist in abstract reality, they are created, they were decided upon, by us.

Similarly, a tech or real estate billionaire may be many things but his success and power in our society comes not from his intelligence or hard work but his ability to make money, which we have decided is the ultimate measure of someone’s worth. We could place the highest value on kindness or ethical behavior or artistic creation or perfect-piecrust-making but we don’t, and that’s a choice. Likewise, that those who enjoy reading should be so tickled by books celebrating books can feel a little, well, arbitrary and self aggrandizing.

On the other hand we have no choice but to live in this self-mediated reality, limited by our human brains and the language that we use to understand, explain, and mediate the world. In a now-famous graduation speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace opened with this anecdote:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

DFW goes on to make the point that being able to recognize water as water is actually very challenging for humans and is the value in being educated in how to think, how to read, how to see. So perhaps the real “defense of the Humanities” is not that the Humanities themselves are of value to anyone or anything but ourselves but that they help us see ourselves a bit more objectively, a bit more meta-ly. Orlean writes:

“The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us with one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come” (309-10).

Even as I agree with Orlean, and find myself swelling to her rhapsodic orations on the beauty of books and of human creation, it’s also good to remember what is water. It’s worthwhile to love what we love and to also realize that it doesn’t matter. We are fortunate creatures (perhaps) on our planet to be able to share the work of our hands and our brains, and to also remain humble about how little it all actually means.

Does that sound nihilistic or fatalistic? Because I mean it in less of a “nothing really matters so let it all burn” kind of way and in more of sort of Buddhist way, a reminder to not get too attached to anything and to take pauses to view things curiously, dispassionately, and without judgement. I love books and find them meaningful. I am moved by the fact that humans document and share our knowledge and thinking and creativity. And humans are also stardust, floating on a minuscule blue dot in an infinite, expanding universe that precedes our existence by billions of years and will continue long after we are gone. Nothing human really matters and so, keeping that truth in mind, the only things that matter are what we decide matter, what we choose to value. And at the end of the day (and the start, and during lunch breaks, and before dinner) I choose books, among other things. But I do so trying not to forget what is water.