In early evening yesterday, after a particularly stressful afternoon, I said to my wife, “Now I am going to lie in bed and read about the climax of the Terror, because that’s what calms and pleases me.”
She gave me one of her I will never understand you shakes of her head, and saw me off to the back of the house, where I dressed for bed and read about Robespierre’s last blood-soaked, head-lopping summer. I finished the chapter, thus the book, and fell soundly asleep.
How? Why? It’s like this: for me, the great pleasure of reading has less to do with the particular content of the book, and more to do with the way it affects my imagination. I can read about mass guillotining, or the differences between the butter of Brittany and Normandy, and be equally enthralled, provided the subjects have given me the sense of being what Walker Percy described as “on to something.” The Robespierre biography (by historian Ruth Scurr) has been riveting, not only because it describes historical events in which I’ve developed an intense interest, but because the narrative she describes is so pregnant with ideas that, to this reader, impart a sense of better understanding those times, the times we live in, and, well, human nature. In short, it gives me more understanding, period, which for me is the best thing about reading, because it satisfies a deep and constant curiosity to know, and to be surprised by what I learn.
This is why I am crazy about books, and have learned never to go anywhere without one, if I can help it. My wife is like this too, for somewhat different reasons. My oldest son is like this, for the same reasons as his father. We are a family with a house full of books, by no means all of them read, but all of them serving as signs and totems. For us, the books serve the approximate emotional role that walls lined with icons serve a community of monks. We use them in our devotions, so to speak, but we also take comfort by their mere presence, if only because they remind us that we are surrounded by a community of minds; that is, the authors, all of whom have something to tell us, if we have the patience to listen.
I say all this as prelude to Anthony Daniels’ wonderful essay about loving books in an age of the decline of print. If you are a book lover like I am a book lover, you will find something that resonates in nearly every paragraph. For example:
For the moment, however, I derive a certain comfort from looking over, and being surrounded by, my laden shelves. They are my refuge from a world that I have found difficult to negotiate; if it had not been for the necessity of earning my living in a more practical way, I could easily, and perhaps happily, have turned into a complete bookworm, or one of those creatures like the silverfish and the small, fragile, scaly moths that spend their entire lives among obscure and seldom disturbed volumes. I would have not read to live, but lived to read.
“A refuge from a world that I have found difficult to negotiate” — yes! And:
So important are books to me that when I go into someone’s house, I find myself drawn to the bookshelves, if any; I try to resist, but in the end succumb to the temptation. If all flesh is grass, all mind is books: at any rate, such is my prejudice, though I know it is not strictly true. What is absent from the shelves is as important, of course, as the silence of the dog that did not bark in the night.
Me too! The essay is a plum pudding of riches like that for book people. Yet the point of the essay is to ruminate on the fading of the printed word in the age of digitized books. Daniels has an admirable self-awareness here:
An intellectual might be defined as someone who elaborates justifications for his own tastes and preferences, as metaphysics was once defined as the finding of bad reasons for what we all believe on instinct. And so the reader of books soon finds reasons for the supposed superiority of the printed page over the screen of the electronic device: for nothing stimulates the brain quite like the need for rationalization. The dullest of minds, I have found, works at the speed of light when a rationalization is needed.
He has a memorable simile to describe book romantics who resist the incoming tide of electronic ink — but to read it, you have to read the whole essay. Doing so reminded me of how much I love Daniels’ prose (he often writes under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple) that I decided that when I get a new e-reader (iPad or Kindle), I should download his latest book, which is available in under a minute. Thus, I guess, proving his point. The revolution is irresistible, at least for people of the book.