Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Happiness and Sadness and Wonder of Books

 As I have mentioned before, I love books. Much of my reading is either Biblical in  nature, or doctrinal in nature, or historical in nature, or all three at once.  I  read more church history than  anybody else I know (three or four books a year on it, and there aren't even that many out there), and to be honest, most of the time it's like chewing rocks while wading through peanut butter.   It seems there is always some weighty matter grabbing my attention,or my opinion and perspective is being sought on some  point of doctrine or history and just as some people never read anything  that's  heavy, I  hardly ever read anything that's light.
  However,  having  made my way through  'History of the Baptists' and having semi-completed the notes for a Bible class, I was in the mood for something light.  I wanted a break. I wanted a novel. I have a stack of books given to me by a friend that had belonged to  his  minister grandfather and  had  been merely sitting in plastic bin in a musty garage for  years. In that stack was a book   written in 1911.  The cover said simply, in black letters "QUEED: A Novel by Henry Sydnor Harrison".
  Now for me, there is  an entire process of reading that involves multiple senses.  I sat there in my bed and  looked at the  faded cover. I ran my hands over the threadbare cloth. I  opened up and saw that this was a 1927 reprint. I  put my nose in the book and smelled the yellowed pages ( try that with a Kindle, I promise you'll be disappointed).  I  perused the table of contents and  then I started to read.  An enjoyable book so far, but in the middle of reading it, a thought struck me; when was the last time this book was read?  Not just when was the last time 'Queed' was read, (if Amazon reviews are any indicator, never) but when was the last time this particular copy was read?
  I am an author, and I understand the process of distilling the  brew of your imagination   and  trying to   put that vision on  a printed page. I know about  creating characters. I know about research. I know about rewrites and rereadings, and moving  things around in a manuscript. I know about  spiral notebooks  crammed with notes written in pencil. I know about   putting  months into a work and then deciding to abandon it.  I know about  asking people to  look at what you've done.  I know about he  fear that  they will think what you have written is as insufficient as you suspect it is.  Creation for consumption by another  is a frighteningly intimate act. If you write, or create in any way, you  know exactly what I mean. I must assume that Mr Harrison knew about it as well. 
  I will never meet Mr Harrison. He'll never even know if I  liked his book or not. I will never have the chance to sit down with him and  find out what sort of person he was. Yet here I was, holding the essence of his  imagination in my hand. He had written it, and published it, and now he lies somewhere moldering in his grave as I sit in  my bed over 100 years later, and the  chasm of time that separated  us had been closed by this  wonderful and marvelous  conglomeration of  ink and paper and  glue. I had as much access to the inside of Mr Harrison's head than I would have ever had if we been contemporaries. His words retain as much life as they ever possessed.  Ink on a page has the  ability to  evoke images and passions,  and skillful words can  endear you to people that don't technically exist. That is part of the wonder of the printed word.
  The other side to that equation  is that  Mr. Harrison's words were typeset, committed to paper, bound in a book, and sold. That book was purchased  and then, after some unknowable time and circumstances , became resigned to a plastic bin in somebody's garage. The creative sweat of Mr. Harrison languished in  unappreciated anonymity for decades. That seems  horribly tragic to me, but at the same time, somewhat inevitable.
   There is only so much time in a man's life and he can only read so much.  You couldn't read  everything ever written, nor should you feel compelled to do so. There are printed works that frankly aren't worth the shelf space in your brain. To qualify as 'well read' you have to literally be at least passingly familiar with hundreds of works written over thousands of years. But there is a certain amount of wading and sorting that one must endure to find those little treasures left behind by  the  minds of the past.  When you  rescue the  contents of another man's heart from the plastic bin in the musty garage, and put those contents into your own heart, you have returned  a small flicker of life to someone who once wondered if what they were writing was ever going to be read by anyone. You have  confirmed and given credence to those hours spent writing and rewriting.  You have validated the time spent, which  was just as precious to them as yours is to you, and you have literally stepped over centuries in a single bound to commune with someone you will never meet.
  Isn't that  absolutely  amazing?
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