Essay — On Books, Libraries, and The Self
Text By Alexander M. DeTillio
Photographs By Stefano Cagnato
In the beginning of Alberto Manguel’s Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, he writes, “I’ve often felt that my library explained who I was, gave me a shifting self that transformed itself constantly throughout the years.” This idea of a “shifting self” captures how I have felt in reference to my intellectual pursuits and pleasures, and the books that have guided me through such transformations; our “selves,” while perhaps always and forever shifting no matter what, are moved even more so when we are constantly in relation to reading and thinking about books. It’s as if each book is a portal to an alternative realm where we can interact with alternative selves. But I’m getting ahead of myself; like Manguel says, “I digress... [h]owever strong my initial intention, I get lost on the way... I become distracted by questions that are alien to my purpose, I am carried away by a flow of associations.”
Having kept a day-to-day record of what I have been reading since the beginning of 2015, I have a document which attests on the surface to a desire to know about the world. Reading has largely been for me an attempt at gaining knowledge and understanding about the world in a rather abstract, scholarly sense. But recently, growing suspicious of the limited scope of such a project, I’ve come to see reading and thinking in a new light: in effect, it seems to me that one reads and thinks not just to know about the world, but also to live in it. And to live in the world is something that happens not just in a theoretical realm of the ideas within the words in books (as, for example, a theoretical sign-signifier-signified chain), but happens just as well in relation to the objects, their places, their history, other people, and the memories we attach to them—thus, both moving forwards and looking backwards. As Soren Kierkegaard says, “It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards.”
In Tim Parks’ recent book, he writes about how he associates “jargon-ridden works of literary criticism” with his stern and scholarly father, which leads him to claim that “[m]y family created a situation where I went to books for fresh air, not scholarship.” For Parks then, books are a gateway to new, open life, not just stagnant ideas. Hence, instead of the following essay being focused solely on ideas and how they work abstractly in relation to the books they are housed in, I also pay attention to my experiences of buying, reading, moving and packing, and actively thinking about books. Contrary to the usual, largely academic idea of books as purely tools to learn from (think of the old, worn down and ugly text books from elementary school), I want to think about them also as artifacts, as objects that also tell a story materially. What is the intersection between the ideas and the objects? How does this intersection change the reader?
I am writing this essay as I start to pack up my apartment to move back home to Columbus, Ohio after spending a year of graduate studies at the University of Chicago. As the year is winding down, I’m growing more reflective about the role books have had in both my intellectual and existential formation, especially over the last ten months. Have I just crammed my head with more information, or have I changed as a person? In other words, has my experience as a reader been one that has validity outside of the institutions and ideologies that have supported it? Is the life of the lover of books, as Albert Camus would say, a “life worth living” in itself?
“You have so many, they are overflowing into the kitchen,” she said, sarcastically glancing across the table at me. For some reason, books in the kitchen seemed strange. “A portion of those are cookbooks,” I replied, not directly to her, but into the public sphere, as if to defend myself in court. But what’s so off about books in the kitchen? In the morning, I can lazily peruse old textbooks while the coffee slowly drips. In the evening, perhaps something more vulgar, like Guillaume Apollinaire's Three Naughty French Novels. I bought this book down the street from my apartment for four dollars, according to the handwritten pencil marks on the first page. Almost 450 pages of French naughtiness for four dollars—is there even a price to be put on such delight? I flip to a page and a line sticks out: "That evening, I nonetheless went home alone. I had some vague thought of writing." Vague, or burning? Alone, or with an idea? I agree—my makeshift bookshelf in the kitchen is eccentric.
“Every bookshelf tells a story,” I once read on a bookmark that I found in a second-hand copy of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. A single story? No—many stories. There’s the stories in the books (what they “are about”), the stories of the books (the textual coming-into-being of the physical objects), the stories of the books in relation to the reader (the subjective experience of a person in the event of reading the text), and the stories of the book in both the history of books as material and cultural objects (which traffics largely in ideas about material processes like printing) and in the history of ideas (how the ideas in the book have affected people over history). Depending on the size of the shelf, and whether the books are stacked vertically, horizontally, or even arranged two or three deep, these stories multiply. If your library is like the one in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (the first time I can remember seeing such an archetypal example of a library) this could be hundreds or thousands of stories, all within one pictorial frame of existence. So many stories, so many perspectives, so much time and space.
The prospective reader here, staring at a shelf as I currently am, can become a traveler of both time and space, able to—“finally!” Kant might yell—transcend themselves, moving into the world of art, history, philosophy, sin, pleasure, and salvation (and of course cookbooks!) through these portals of paper and words. In other words, the reader finds themselves confronted with the world of human existence outside of her limited, subjective experience of it: the world attached to a history we all are defined by (as Heidegger would have it), but perhaps doesn’t have as much import in our lives as the sunshine of spring or a conversation with a friend deep into the night; the world which, whether due to World War 3, the drying up of natural resources, or the fast and unforgiving march of technological advancements, might not exist much longer—that is, unless we strive to keep a connection with the dusty and forgotten words of those long gone. Miguel de Unamuno says in Tragic Sense of Life that this desire to not be forgotten is a key motivation to write, and is the desire behind all others; it’s the desire to live, to continue on, to still feel the sunshine and hear the words of friends long after our time has come. Perhaps by writing down our feelings about sunshine and friendly conversations, such experiences can be immortalized beyond our physical end directly and without pretense. Is it not the power of writing books to stretch our condition out just a bit longer? Perhaps at least until humanity itself (as a collective beyond the individual death) is extinguished?
Speaking of such things, I shift my perspective to another shelf. This one is in my bedroom, and begins the non-fiction section. About two-thirds down the first column is my nature and science shelf, which, admittedly, is far more full of naturalistic and transcendental writings than anything truly “scientific.” Between Emerson and Thoreau, and stacked vertically with some other such books, is Allen Weismann’s The World Without Us. This book was recommended to me as an example of what might actually be considered the beauty of such a world after humans are gone. A few months later I started reading it at a café in Portland on the day when the rest of my school peers were waiting hours in line to be handed their diplomas back in Ohio. I was imagining a world without humans—a world different from the anthropocentric one we know so well—on a day when many of the people I knew were being handed a piece of paper that was going to be a big reason for their success in that very anthropocentric world. My life, in this moment, was comprised of all these angles of this book: its story (as both a material object and the ideas it contained), its relation to me, and its meaning in the history of objects and ideas. What I think of and value most, however, is my subjective connection to the book and its ideas: I remember reading the book because of where, when, and in what state of mind I read it.
When I scan my shelves now, I think of all these stories and their multi-level connections; I imagine them emanating out of these material objects, giving them a life of their own. Their many-layered and storied life leads them, as I when I read them, to transcend themselves outwards into space, as if all the type—the little black marks on varying degrees of white paper—hold within each miniscule mark a whole world of life bursting through each marking. And this transcendental life of the book stretches through space and time, beyond the clouds, and out into the cosmos. When the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is reading Goethe’s Werther, for example, he is not just getting a 19th century, British education—he’s tapping into this cannon of literature and thought as a way to delve into the human experience, in all its glory, love, and cosmological (in)significance. He’s not being taught, but learning about what it is to be, and the very act of reading and fondling the books themselves is a part of that process. As life is not just the idea of it but also being it in physical existence, so too is a book not just the concepts within it but also its physical instantiation. Thus, like life, a book is both conceptual and physical in its essence: it resides in the space between Plato and Aristotle’s pointing in Raphael’s famous painting.
While I’m on the topic of Shelley’s book, my copy of Frankenstein (the original 1818 text, of course) stands between an unread copy of Shelley’s The Last Man and a very old copy of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. I wonder: if Frankenstein’s monster could have and did read Shaw’s book, would his fate have been different? If I had read Shelley’s book in high school when most people read it, would my connection be different? Of course. For not only has my world changed since then, history itself has marched on. And every time I open a book, my connection to that eternal movement of history is both confirmed (I am a creature in a culture and history of books) and denied (in this selfish act of reading, I, like Kierkegaard, refuse to be swallowed by an impersonal abstraction). Like the properties of the books themselves, the act of my reading them is a moment (an “event,” in phenomenological language) which spans both abstraction and reality; I travel through both time and space.
Packing: Arthur Nersesian – Unlubricated (Fiction, novel, unread, but read The Fuck Up by him just after high school), Anton Chekov – Ward No. 6 and Other Stories (Fiction, short story collection, unread, but have read some of the stories elsewhere), Moliere – Eight Plays (Fiction, drama collection, read “The Misanthrope”), Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy (Fiction, novel, unread, another recommendation from professor Knowles), Pierre Bourdeu – Acts of Resistance (Nonfiction, interviews and little essays, read most of, bought at Powell’s), D. H. Lawrence – Selected Short Stories (Fiction, short story collection, read), Umberto Eco – Travels in Hyperreality (Nonfiction, essays, unread, but have read bits of The Open Work), Max Frisch – Man in the Holocene (Fiction, novel, read most of), Hinrich Fink-Eitel – Foucault: An Introduction (Nonfiction, philosophy, read), Edited by Louise Westling – The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment (Nonfiction, essay collection, read excerpts)
On the back of my copy of Miguel De Unamuno’s aforementioned Tragic Sense of Life, is what I take to be the motto of the SophiaOmni Press: “Great Ideas Endure Forever.” The irony of this phrase adorning Unamuno’s book is that he takes this idea of living forever, at least in the physical realm, to ultimately be a folly: writing our mementos does not fully assuage our true, spiritual desire to live beyond our physical limits. He explains that one day, perhaps when the universe extinguishes itself, such a written work will also necessarily perish (not to mention all the more realistic perils books have gone through throughout history like the burning of The Library of Alexandria, which Manguel mentions a few times). For Unamuno, great ideas do not endure “forever.” Well, at least not in their written form. But what about the abstract ideas and meanings in the work? Could they endure forever, beyond the material life of the book and author?
Everything from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (which, though heavily marked and read, I still have little opinion on), to Heidegger’s Being and Time (which I’ve read and loved for years, though still find it hard to really grasp), to Norman Holland’s The “I” (a find of last year’s Hyde Park Book Fair which has stared, unread, at me since), tries to convince me of some idea of what it is to be “a self.” Althusser, Foucault, Descartes, and Simone de Beauvoir all chime in, among others. Yet I remain consciously unconvinced of any formulation in its entirety, and what’s more, I am currently drifting away from any concise, philosophical definition. However—perhaps more unconsciously—I have a dim feeling that these books have in fact seeped into my being and become a part of me. Though I flip through annotated “Xs” of disagreement, heavily underlined and highlighted lines, and pages without marks (did I skip that page, or just not have any reaction to it?), I find prescient moments outside of the act of reading the book when a few words will pop into my head. It’s as if, though my conscious mind didn’t (couldn’t?) wrap itself around such big and totalizing systems of thought when I was in the act of reading them, my unconscious mind (my spirit?) drank up every word. The ideas in these books, whether I am consciously aware or not, have become a part of my “self.” Perhaps this quasi-spiritual connection to the ideas of old, dead, (mostly white) men, is what lives on beyond their physical being and their writings. Maybe one day, when I am walking down the street and a moment from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness pops into my head, I will turn to the person I’m walking with and communicate that moment. And thus, the idea will live on. And, one step further, maybe I’ll even get home and sit down and write out that thought. And thus written again, through my subjective lens, the idea will take a written form and continue on.
This idea of writing being an act that transcends itself—that goes beyond the moment it is written—is the spiritual power of writing. The idea that the words do not just emanate out of the book in the present moment of being-in-relation to the reader (as I said above), but which then coalesce in that reader, only to expel themselves yet again in perhaps a new formulation—this is the mystical weight of the written word. To move between lives, times, and objects, to create a connection beyond itself, is writing’s modus operandi. A book is then the physical instantiation of the metaphysical—it is the moment when heaven comes down to earth.
In one of his few interviews ever given, Cormac McCarthy said “books are made of books... The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” Fittingly, this is the title of a book about McCarthy’s influences: Books are Made of Books. In this study, Michael Lynn Crews attempts to trace McCarthy’s literary influences, from Faulkner and Joyce to Camus and Nietzsche, claiming that indeed McCarthy is largely rehashing many things already written (or at least reorganizing them). Yet, as time has shown, McCarthy has been considered one of the greatest American novelists of the late 20th / early 21st century (I agree). But is McCarthy just unoriginal? On the contrary, perhaps McCarthy is just sharing the secret of every story: we are all in conversation with each other when we write, whether we know it or not. All the connections made before our own bare on the present. Perhaps we could go one step further though: it’s not just books that are made of books, but selves that are made of other selves. This points towards a life that is not just “a life,” but “Life” in general. And the literary world is a part of that existence.
I bring this up partly because there’s a stereotype of the lover of books as always in solitude. We think of the monk in a deep dark chamber pouring over old manuscripts, or the single woman with her cats reading on the sofa to assuage her loneliness and lack of love. While it is perhaps true that books can be a friend when you have no others, it’s more accurate to say that the world swirling out of the book (with all its parts mentioned above) is actually what is being connected to. Nobody reads in a vacuum: there’s always a dialogue with time and history, with other books and ideas and people. In this sense then, great ideas do endure forever: as long as there’s readers, there’s a conversation, and as long as there’s a conversation, there will be books influencing that conversation.
Packing: Baruch Spinoza – Ethics, Selected Letters (Nonfiction, philosophical essays and correspondence, mostly unread, bought for research on the origin of “affect”), Edited by Michael Martin – The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Nonfiction, essay collection, read excerpts), Edited by Graham Bartram – The Cambridge Companion to the Modern German Novel (Nonfiction, essay collection, read the essay on Kafka), Vaclav Havel – Living in Truth (Nonfiction, essays, unread, bought based on reading Tony Judt), Terry Eagleton – Ideology: An Introduction (Nonfiction, literary theory, read bits of and read Literary Theory: An Introduction for my thesis), Rosalind Hursthouse – Beginning Lives (Nonfiction, philosophy, mostly unread, bought after being introduced to her in a Philosophy of Ethics class), Raymond Bellour – The Analysis of Film (Nonfiction, film theory, read most of), Mladen Dolar – A Voice and Nothing More (Nonfiction, theory and philosophy, read the essay on Kafka; he co-taught a class I was in), Anthony Storr – Solitude: A Return to the Self (Nonfiction, philosophy and nature, unread, recently found in a free library box a couple blocks over from my apartment), Richard Rorty – Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Nonfiction, philosophy and theory, read the chapter “Proust, Heidegger, and Nietzsche”).
The question “what are books for?” seems the wrong one to ask. “For”? As if all books did was work towards an end. As if books were just a means, tools without a joy in themselves. For some—and maybe most—I think this seems true: it’s a common point in many studies on the history of books to point out that the most common uses of writing and publishing are (and have been) for utilitarian purposes. Recently, Kafka’s Office Writings were translated into English for the first time. Though the scholar may wish to pull out clues to his fiction writing from such a collection, I can’t help but imagine Kafka aimlessly and frantically wandering through a maze of offices and sterile corridors in The Princeton University Press to try and make this stop. “But this will be a great tool for the scholar to understand you better, Franz!” Max Brod would say. A tool, yes. But where’s the pleasure in pure utility? Do books “do” more than aid us towards a simple end?
What about a dictionary, surely that is a book which is just a means to an end? I keep a few handy at all times: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition), Webster’s New French Dictionary, Webster’s New Explorer Spanish-English Dictionary, and The New Fontina Dictionary of Modern Thought (a favorite) all sit around my apartment in handy places. Sometimes, I open them randomly to read for pleasure. In Manguel’s eighth digression, we learn that Flaubert, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Vladimir Nabokov all read the dictionary for pleasure. Likewise, I have a friend who claims he started reading the dictionary when he went to public high school to make up for all the words he never learned in home school. He would then get caught up in the pleasure of the act, becoming enthralled with new words which he would joyfully deploy in casual conversation with his peers (he still does this). The effect of this strategy, perhaps to his chagrin, actually further alienated him; imagine a high school student casually using the word “bombastic” to describe a more enthusiastic friend. Of course, this is a strange sort of pleasure, one which I’m sure has plenty of import on learning and using such words even if we do just approach the act for leisure. So maybe, reading the dictionary is pleasure and utility all in one. Perhaps that is the ideal.
But, as Manguel suggests, dictionaries also tap into something else: “A dictionary... is in itself a paradox: on the one hand accumulating that which a society creates for its own consumption, hoping for a shared comprehension of the world; on the other, circulating what it amasses so that the old words won’t die on the page and new words are not left out in the cold.” The former signals the utility: understanding words in order to create a shared space; the latter points to memory: part of the pleasure found in dictionaries (and the words within them) is their dogged insistence on the past. And this idea of a book with its plot, theme, characters, and tone focused solely on words and the memory they carry strikes me as a possible answer to not only the “what are books for?” question, but also to the question of what books “do” to the reader: they make us remember.
Last summer, I decided to reread some of my favorite books. The most impactful was Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. I first read Hemingway’s masterpiece over ten years ago, fresh out of high school. At that time, I was taken by the descriptions of war and love that I had no subjective connection to. But reading it this time around, I felt Lieutenant Henry’s feelings towards Catherine. It made me remember. I remembered the feeling of waiting (“an arrival, a return, a promised sign,” as Barthes puts it in A Lover’s Discourse) for the consummation of love and a future promise of happiness. I recalled the pain and joys of love. This novel brought me back to a life I had, both ten years ago when I first read the book, and earlier last year when I felt some of the feelings portrayed in it. That is part of the power of books: to transport us not just to the world of the text and the ideas and stories within, but to other points in our own life, to recreate the act of being in the world—both our subjective world and the outside world we live in.
Packing: E. M. Forester – Maurice (Fiction, novel, read), Naomi Klein – This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate (Nonfiction, ecological essays, mostly read), David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Fiction, read half, one of a few novels in years not finished once started; I loved Cloud Atlas), Immanuel Kant – Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Nonfiction, philosophy, read most of), Mary Wollstonecraft / Mary Shelly – Mary and Maria, Matilda (Fiction, novels, read Maria for class), Ken Kesey – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Fiction, novel, unread, given to me by a good friend, who quoted Roald Dahl in the inside cover: “A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”), Sebastian Knowles – The Dublin Helix: The Life of Language in Joyce’s Ulysses (Nonfiction, literary criticism, only read some excerpts, though I had three classes—one on Ulysses specifically—with the author), Christopher Isherwood – A Single Man (Fiction, novel, read), Hermann Hesse – Narcissus and Goldmund (Fiction, novel, read), Nancy Milford – Zelda: A Biography (Nonfiction, biography, unread, given to me by my speech teacher at Columbus State Community College almost ten years ago after I did a presentation on F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Toward the end of Mathew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, Kirschenbaum writes, “This is what we mean by materiality... not just the presence or absence of information, but the lived struggle to reclaim and to recover it, to remember, to experience, and to know—to be known. This, in the end, is always what remains. What else really matters?” This desire “to be known,” and its connection to knowing, which creates a synthesis between the individual and the world, is the strand of thought that relates to the desire to write and live within the realm of books and the libraries that house them. In effect, it is a curious type of “materiality”: it is—to hazard an immaterial conjecture—the core impetus we all share in wanting all living to continue beyond the present, material aspects of being. Abstracting another step, this connects once again to Unamuno’s thought about why we choose to write: “That is to say that you, I...wish never to die and that this longing of ours never to die is our actual essence.” It is in writing, archiving, storing, and safeguarding our mementos that those of us who are dedicated to knowledge and the written (or typed) word attempt to assuage and enact this desire to live forever. In a secular age, one of doubt and criticism—especially towards religious ideas of transcendence—perhaps we can immortalize ourselves in our written work.
By dedicating one’s life to books and writing and the expanding world that emanates from them, and by such a dedication aligning with this fundamental desire we as humans have, such a life is worth living; despite an ever-changing environment, the bibliophile (and the writer) are such the types of people who grab a hold of this fundamental desire and enact it continually. And their struggles are in fact then immortalized in their reading and writing. Thus, “the self” of the literary lover is a self lived authentically in view of the human condition. As I quoted Manguel at the beginning, this self is shifting in relation to one’s books and writing, but below such a shifting surface is the connection to a more essential core, a core which is our condition. And the books we surround ourselves with are the material reminders of our fundamental being, as one which desires to live in relation to everything else that populates the world around us—while still being individual selves.
In a month, I’ll be finishing my packing. The time will come when my beloved collection of books on Albert Camus will have to be relegated to a bland, cardboard box. Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre will go next to Camus, covered over in the end by Ernest Hemingway. I imagine these three men in conversation with each other, perhaps the only thing in common being their love for short, declarative statements. Yet, what these books and the ideas within them also have in common is the marks they have made on me, a middle class kid from the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. Could I find my own story written somewhere, maybe weaseled away in a dimly lit stack in the Regenstein Library? I don’t think so. For while I could surely find everything I want to know about Hemingway, and much on Camus and McCarthy, my story has yet to be told. Or better, while maybe the above attests to some of my thinking and feeling, the book of my life (“of my wounds, my joys, my interpretations, my rationalizations, my impulses...” as Barthes says) has yet to be written. As Manguel remarks, “I know that my full, true story is there, somewhere on the shelves, and all I need is time and the chance to find it. [But] I never do. My story remains elusive because it is never the definitive story.” What I can say, however, is that my self has been “written” in one sense; all these books and stories and ideas have changed me, some even reaching down and plucking a cord of my essence. Thus, through this inscribing on my being, I am connected to a world that simultaneously defines and transcends me: the world of books. And through this connection, I reach out into the larger human community. I reach out beyond my self, and stretch into the cosmos.