Hi everyone! I’m in Tennessee this week to deliver a workshop and a keynote address at the Saint Andrew’s-Sewanee School Celebration of the Book. Keynotes, it turns out, are awfully long, and take a lot of time to prepare! Fortunately, when you’re done with one, you have a ready-made blog post. All of which is by way of saying that this blog post may be a little more protracted and, um, call-to-action-y than my usual ruminative fare. I hope you like it!
By way of weird coincidences, today (fine, tomorrow) is the second anniversary of the publication of Three Parts Dead. I’ve been a full time writer for two years. It’s been a wild ride, and a wonderful one, and I don’t plan to stop so long as y’all keep reading.
Heck, I wouldn’t stop even if you stopped reading. But your reading does keep me in food, and writers do like to eat.
Why celebrate the book?
I can share my reasons with you. One o’clock in the morning, can’t sleep, ten years old, I read a creased paperback of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, turning yellowed pages until dawn, this mystery explosion of Hindu gods and alien worlds and immortal Buddhist con-artistry. Malingering in a tourist bookshop in Prague, same year, my Dad’s pulling me out to see this beautiful medieval city but I only want to fall into this strange comic book I’ve found, which turns out to be an adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic—my first exposure to Pratchett, life-changing. Flat on my back with food poisoning in a Zhengjiajie hotel as the manager tries to break down the door because he doesn’t want an American dying in his establishment, I lie full of swoon dreams from The Hound of the Baskervilles and Invisible Man. I still have this one copy of The Hero and the Crown I checked out so often from Sewanee Elementary the librarian gave it to me when I left. Somewhere in my mind I’m always running home through the rainstorm with Crime and Punishment tucked into the waistband of my jeans under my shirt, reaching safety to find the paperback all sodden and accordioned, Roskolnikov wet to the bone. And then I did the same with Zorba the Greek a few months later. I could tell you stories about road-tripping with Dorothy Dunnett, falling asleep with my face in the cleavage of the Collected Works of Shakespeare.
So I celebrate the book, full of dog ears and margin notes, the stories which became part of mine—but maybe I’m moving too fast. My love isn’t necessarily yours. Saying books are great because I love them, because I’ve marked my life with them, because I’ve filled my house with them, because I’ve written them, doesn’t tell you much. After all, there are people in the world who like salt licorice.
Why celebrate the book?
The codex, this thing I have here, is the killer app of the second century CE. Before this, you had to read with scrolls—rolling page by page to the left. You just scrolled to the left. Forget something? Scroll back to the right. With one of these, it’s great—you remember a bit earlier in the book that’s relevant to this piece of information here. When was the War of 1812 again? Just flip those pages back. Cutting age technology. Before the codex, everything was what we call serial access—you can only read one page at a time. The codex is the earliest random access memory, like RAM on a computer: you could move to any point you wanted, at any time.
So let’s celebrate the book! Pinnacle of technology!
Technology has advanced since the second century. The phone in my pocket can hold all the books ever written in the memory I haven’t yet filled with animated pictures of cats pushing things off tables and otters that look like Benedict Cumberbatch. Though electronic books are much closer to the scroll than the codex. With an ebook you only see one page at a time; you have to move forward or back in sequence, rather than fanning through the pages until you find just the spot you’re looking for. Scientists have studied these questions in double-blind experiments: turns out people remember information they’ve read in a physical text better than information they’ve read on a screen. Also, human beings are better at locating information within a physical text than within an electronic text. The codex offers readers a lot of feedback—you feel how many pages were on one side, how many pages on the other, you remember the shape of paragraphs and chapter breaks. The human mind is much better at estimating than at precise recall: having a book you’ve read in front of you is a much better aid to memory than is pure text search.
So let’s celebrate the book! Celebrate its superior search capacity! Celebrate it as an aid to memory! No, that doesn’t sound right.
Maybe neuroscience can help us! Maybe neuroscience can tell us what we should celebrate about the book. MRI studies show that reading about hammering in a nail makes the same parts of your brain fire as hammering that nail yourself—and as nerve cells fire they develop lasting physical connections. When you read about driving, you practice some parts of driving—at least, if the writer you’re reading knows enough about driving to write about it well. So, when we read books about hard decisions, about bravery and heroism, about doing the right thing, we practice doing the right thing ourselves.
And then we get to the health benefits of reading. People who read half an hour a day have measurably lower stress levels than people who don’t. Reading also fights dementia.
All hail the book, training tool! All hail the book, modeler of behavior! All hail the book, which reduces stress and fights dementia!
Eh. I’m still not convinced.
But reading has economic benefits as well! An energy department survey in the United Kingdom determined that houses with lots of books had lower heating bills. Turns out lining your walls with a foot or so of wood pulp is great insulation in wintertime.
Professionally, though—reading is one of the few tasks at which humans are still better than machines. Computers are great at interpreting ‘structured data’—numbers in a spreadsheet, names in blanks on a form, whether or not you clicked “like” on a Facebook post, who you message on Snapchat. Computers still aren’t very good at interpreting ‘unstructured data’—a raw stream of information without context, like a diary entry or an interview or a book. Understanding, interpreting, and navigating unstructured data is computationally difficult, and is likely to remain so for a couple decades. By reading books, you practice one of the shrinking number of skills at which humans will remain better than machines for the foreseeable future.
Let’s celebrate the book, economic benefactor! Celebrate the book, which prepares us for the jobs of the future!
No? I don’t buy it either.
But: books can change the world!
All art can change the world, of course. But narrative art is about change, and books are the form of that art most likely to take up arms. For one thing they’re cheaper to make than any other form of mass narrative entertainment—so they can take bigger risks. A television show episode costs around a million dollars to shoot, if you’re not working with A-list stars. Guardians of the Galaxy cost $170 million from conception to final print, and hundreds of millions of more in marketing and promotion. Companies only spend that money when they want to make it back. So films push merchandising rights, and television shows cater to advertisers. This isn’t some insidious agenda—when something costs a lot of money to make, the people who sell it want to make that money back. But this means a film needs to sell millions of tickets to make ends meet. When you have to sell millions of tickets, or please millions of viewers, you don’t take as many risks. You tell stories that comfort and reassure.
Books, on the other hand, need a writer, an editor, a printer, and some paper—and all those things are cheap. Books need to please fewer people to make back the publisher’s investment—so publishers can afford to take risks, and so can writers.
That’s how Random House could publish Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a scathing and brilliant novel about race in America, and the erasure of black people at the hands of white—in 1952. And if large publishers aren’t willing to take a chance, small presses step up: Alan Ginsberg published HOWL through City Lights, a San Francisco bookstore—I saw the best minds of my generation starving hysterical naked. Ulysses, by James Joyce, was published by Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, another bookstore with a printing press—and was promptly banned for obscenity on its import into the US. Free Speech! And there’s always self-publishing: Virginia Woolf self-published her novels. Lady Chatterly’s Lover was self-published.
And even if a book doesn’t light the sky on fire at once—books are patient. Books wait. Moby Dick disappeared on publication—its first edition ran to only two thousand copies, five hundred of which were later found unsold. It waited. Mikhael Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita waited, too: a novel written during Stalinist purges in Russia, this horrible period in which people the government claimed were enemies of the state were arrested, tortured, and deported to the Gulag. Master and Margarita is about Satan and his buddy, a talking cat with a revolver, wrecking Stalin’s Moscow, mocking the government and exposing hypocrisy—and the book lurked unpublished for thirty years, until it appeared like a bolt of lightning in the mid sixties, miraculous. The journalist Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, his great novel of the Second World War—Soviet secret police burned the manuscripts they found in his house, and even the typewriter ribbon he used to compose them. And still the book escaped.
Celebrate the book, because books revolt! Celebrate the book, because books can change the world!
I like that better than ‘because books cut your heating bill,” but it’s a short jump from ‘books can change the world” to “books must change the world,” and a short jump further to “books that don’t envision a world we like are bad books,” and once we’ve gone that far, those same thugs who burned Vasily Grossman’s typewriter ribbons are waiting.
Besides, while books can change the destiny of nations, they don’t always—rarely ever, in fact—do it in the way their authors plan. Upton Sinclair meant The Jungle as a socialist manifesto. It didn’t get the workers in the streets, but it did get Washington to pass food and workplace safety laws. Ayn Rand’s valorizations of unregulated capitalism inspired supposedly well-meaning treasury officials to de-regulate the financial industry—which led to the 2008 recession, and the economic madness from which we’re still recovering. And I doubt Stephanie Meyer anticipated that fan-fiction based on her work would become 50 Shades of Grey.
So, we’ve come this far, and dangit, we’re still no closer to the reason why we’re celebrating the book! They all seem incomplete.
But maybe we’re asking—maybe I’m asking—the wrong question. Asking why supposes a final cause for books, a single purpose they must fulfill, or else fail. The why is a question of use: what is a book good for?
The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi tells a story about a tree.
A carpenter and his student go for a walk and pass a shrine in front of which an enormous ancient oak is growing. The student is impressed: “Master, look at that awesome tree!”
The carpenter scoffs. “What are you talking about? If you made boats out of that tree, they’d sink. If you made a coffin, it would rot. If you made floors out of it, they’d sweat tar. Use it for a house-beam and the house collapses. What a useless tree!”
That night the carpenter sleeps, and in his dream the oak appears. It’s not pleased.
“You call me useless. But look at your useful trees! You cut them down for lumber—and the ones you don’t, the cherry, the orange, the apple, as soon as their fruit’s ripe you tear them apart. Their big limbs are broken off, the little ones tossed every which way. Their usefulness is the death of them.
“Me, I’ve worked very hard to become useless. I almost died, but I’ve finally got the hang of it.”
Books may have lots of great qualities, but at heart they’re useless like that tree is useless—they’re bigger than use, and so they are immortal.
Which in turn makes books the best possible companion for human beings.
Because the danger we all face, every day, is that we are very useful indeed.
We’re told, every day, from thirteen to seventy and beyond, that we are valued by our usefulness. It starts with that kindergarten question: what are you going to be when you grow up? as if you’re nothing now. Ads promise us we’ll be valued if we want things, and people, and sometimes if we want people in the same way we want things. Social media promises us we’ll be valued if we build networks that make the social media platform worth more on the stock exchange. Gyms promise us we’ll be valued by our ability to lift heavy objects, which coincidentally depends on the amount of money we spend on gym memberships and protein powder and personal trainers.
That might sound cynical. Maybe it is. But it’s only dangerous when we forget that we are bigger than the uses others find for us. We are subjects, not objects. We come in front of the verb. We build, we do, we decide, we make, we love—we cook, we climb, we carve, we teach, we learn, we write, we dance, and we work.
But when so much of the world wants to use us, we need to find space to breathe. We need to make space for ourselves in front of those verbs. Archimedes says “give me place to stand and I can move the world;” to become subjects we need a place to stand—freedom from the destructive state of being useful. We need room to be alone inside our own heads, to confront the mystery of life and decide what meaning we will take from it.
We can find that space in the natural world, in religion, in music, in dance. But reading is special—when we read, we stand at once alone and before the greatest, and worst, and maddest minds in history. We are the carpenter in Zhuangzi’s story, visited by the ancients in our dreams. And yet, when we read, we are not compelled. A book has no power beyond the power we give it. To read we must pull meaning from a text—and we must do this work alone.
In this world where our lives are constantly monitored and controlled—when we read a book, we are alone and invisible and free. Reading has the simplicity of the weight room or the track, the purity of a time trial. We face a book with no limits and no resources save ourselves. No one can follow us where we go when we read. No one can peer into our heads and see the thoughts we form. Books are the final inch, the ultimate refuge. I say refuge, not retreat—they’re more than a place to hide from the world, though they can be that as well if a place to hide is what you need. Books are a secret base within which you can plan your attack, your revolution, your transformation. In books you can decide what you want to do—what verb you want to stand before.
Books are possibilities and arguments and other worlds. Books hold truths and lies, laws and guidelines, mysteries and answers, which like any other answers are wrong or right depending on your time, position, velocity, history, and whether you’ve had lunch. Books are refuges and vanguards and secret lairs. Books are the Shadow Gallery and the Gray Council and the Rebel Moon of Yavin IV, and they are the doorframe on which we mark our growth over time. They are friends and enemies, old lovers, betrayed comrades, mistrusted Mr. Darcies, and mugsful of warm cider. Books are electric, and books ground. Books teach, and books laugh at the idea of teaching. Books transcend. They are subjects.
Let’s celebrate them.
Let’s celebrate the book by reading and re-reading. Celebrate the book by loving this book and hating that one and talking and thinking until we know why. Celebrate the book by throwing one across the room because the author finally crossed the line from transgressive to reprehensible. Celebrate the book by picking up a volume we threw across the room ten years ago and finding something cool this time—or discovering we were right to throw it. Celebrate the book by reading a story we’ve never read before, by an author whose name we don’t recognize. Celebrate the book by picking our way through a text that challenges our most deeply-held beliefs. Celebrate the book by sprinting out of our comfort zones, and celebrate the book by returning to them with eyes wide open. Celebrate the book by reading one and learning how to code, or find our way through the woods by night, how it feels to ride a dragon or be abandoned by a lover. Celebrate the book by savoring library must, the pebbly roughness of paper, the curve of a good font, that crease in the cover, this incomprehensible underline made at three in the morning by our own hand.
Let’s celebrate the book not for its use, but for itself—as we celebrate human beings. As they transcend use themselves, books free us to transcend the uses others find for us, the places they put us in. And when we’re free, we can come back and free our friends.