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?