Are You Ever Worried About Your Books?

This may sound a little hyperbolic, but for the first time ever I’m worried about where the world is heading. 

I was in grade school during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I vividly remember my mother creating a route for us to walk home from school — “if anything should happen.” She had food stacked in the cold cellar under the farmhouse where we lived. “If anything happens”, Mom said to hide under the house in the cold cellar and wait.

I remember the Vietnam War protests, the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the various domestic bombings by “the hippies’. And later, I remember the invasion of Iraq and the Gulf War. They were all scary times but none of them seemed to threaten our integrity like the current days seem to be doing. 

If you’re reading books these days — the physical objects — take a few minutes to examine them. 

Today, most authors take a good deal of time to package their prose. They’re often involved in the cover design, page layout, colors, choice of font, graphics, and paper choice. Elements irrelevant to the process of reading, but elements that can impact how we as readers take in the material. In many respects, it’s a wonderful time to be an author. So many great options. 

And, in an era when so much media is altered, the book as physical object matters more than ever. Books stand as they are after they’re printed. They can’t be altered. They stand alone.

Books are a conversation any reader is invited to have with the author. The words stand for themselves. There is no danger of photoshopping after the fact. 

But they are also fragile entities. They can be burned. 

At the risk of over-statement, it feels like a scary time for those of us who love books. Particularly with a leader who has proudly declared in both friendly and unfriendly press that he does not read books.

Moreover, it is increasingly clear that what is not of personal value to him, he does not hesitate to encourage others to disparage or even destroy. 

I am concerned that if we are not mindful, we are in danger of losing our books. If we lose our books we will lose more than a written text.

Ray Bradbury envisioned a world of burned books in his classic, Fahrenheit 451. If you haven’t read it, you should begin. 

The author, Neil Gaiman wrote in the 2013 introduction to the Simon & Schuster paperback edition:

“When I reread it as a teenager, Fahrenheit 451 had become book about independence, about thinking for yourself. It was about treasuring books and the dissent inside the covers of books. It was about how we as humans begin by burning books and end by burning people…

But still, the heart of the book remains untouched, and the questions Bradbury raises remain as valid and important. 

Why do we need the things in books? The poems, the essays, the stories? Authors disagree. Authors are human and fallible and foolish. Stories are lies after all, tales of people who never existed and the things that never actually happened to them. Why should we read them? Why should we care? 

The teller and the tale are very different. We must not forget that.

Ideas — written ideas — are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our thoughts from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy; it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over….

This is a book about caring for things. It’s a love letter to books, but I think, just as much, it’s a love letter to people, ….”

And then, when you are done with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 go pick up Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. — Oh my, it’s a lovely book. 

It is full of wonderful stories about people and their books.  Colette’s insistence that Hugo’s Les Miserable be read in bed.  Or the connection between Gutenberg’s printing press and the need for traveling peddlers to sell ‘cheap continental spectacles.’ 

Manguel’s book is a heartfelt homage to the act of reading and the thing itself. It tells us how books came to be and how they can be destroyed.  But it’s more — it is a history of humanity and our many peccadilloes. 

Manguel writes eloquently in his 2014 introduction,

“Almost twenty years have elapsed since I finished (or abandoned) A History of Reading. At the time, I thought I was exploring the art of reading, the perceived characteristics of the craft and how these came into being. I didn’t know I was in fact affirming our right as readers to pursue our vocation (or passion) beyond economic, political and technological concerns, in a boundless, imaginative realm where the reader is not forced to choose and, like Eve, can have it all. Literature is not dogma: it offers questions, not conclusive answers. Libraries are essential places of intellectual freedom: any constraints imposed upon them are our own. Reading is, or can be, the open-ended means by which we come to know a little more about the world and about ourselves, not through opposition but through recognition of words addressed to us individually, far away, and long ago.“

So what does all of the above have to do with individual self-development?  Perhaps, everything:

  • Who are you?
  • Where do you come from?
  • What is your story?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What do you stand for?

Books help us answer those questions and explore different answers as we grow. Without books, all kinds of books, we will lose our ability to explore. 

If we are not careful and we don’t continue to honor who we are as individuals and diverse communities on this planet through the unique medium of the book, the concerns and fears quietly expressed by these authors, may come to pass. 

If we do not marvel and cherish the power of books not just for the ideas they spread and the knowledge they contain — but cherish them as objects that unalterably present the record of the author — a record that cannot be painted over, video edited, deleted or photoshopped — if we do not honor and cherish our books, we are in danger of losing our history, our integrity and our humanity. 

If you love books, let’s all go out and buy a book today! 

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