Record: 1 Title: In Defense of the Book

Download 32.07 Kb.
Date conversion13.12.2016
Size32.07 Kb.

Record: 1

Title: In Defense of the Book.
Author(s): Gass, William H.
Source: Harper's Magazine; Nov99, Vol. 299 Issue 1794, p45, 7p,
Document Type: Article
Subject(s): LIBRARIES -- Aims & objectives

HISTORY of English Prose Rhythm, A (Book)

Abstract: Discusses the importance of keeping books. Details on
the book `A History of English Prose Rhythm,' by George Saintsbury;
Information on public libraries; Comparisons of electronic revolution
with that of writing and printing; Functions of the library.
Full Text Word Count: 4938
ISSN: 0017-789X
Accession Number: 2405684

Persistent link to this record:

Cut and Paste:
href="">In Defense
of the Book.

Database: Academic Search Premier

Section: ESSAY

On the enduring pleasures of paper, type, page, and ink

When Ben Jonson was a small boy, his tutor, William Camden, persuaded
him of the virtue of keeping a commonplace book: pages where an ardent
reader might copy down passages that especially pleased him, preserving
sentences that seemed particularly apt or wise or rightly formed and
that would, because they were written afresh in a new place, and in a
context of favor, be better remembered, as if they were being set down
at the same time in the memory of the mind. Here were more than turns of
phrase that could brighten an otherwise gloomy page. Here were
statements that seemed so directly truthful they might straighten a
warped soul on seeing them again, inscribed, as they were, in a child's
wide round trusting hand, to be read and reread like the propositions of
a primer, they were so bottomed and basic.

Jonson translated or rewrote the quotes and connected them with fresh

reflections until their substance seemed his own, and seamlessly woven
together, too, which is how the work reads today, even though it is but
a collection of loose pages taken, after his death, from the defenseless
drawers of his desk. The title, extended in the manner of the period
into an explanation, reads, Timber: or, Discoveries; Made upon Men and
Matter: as they have flow'd out of his daily Readings; or had their
refluxe to his peculiar Notion of the Times; and it is followed by an
epigraph taken from Persius' Satires: "To your own breast in quest of
worth repair, and blush to find how poor a stock is there." With a
flourish whose elegance is lost on our illiterate era, Jonson fills his
succeeding page, headed Sylva, with a justification of his title in
learned Latin, which can be translated as follows:

(here are) the raw material of facts and thoughts, wood, as it were, so

called from the multiplicity and variety of the matter contained
therein. For just as we are commonly wont to call a vast number of trees
growing indiscriminately "a wood," so also did the ancients call those
of their books, in which were collected at random articles upon various
and diverse topics, a wood, or timber trees.

My copy of Discoveries has its own history. It came from the library of

Edwin Nungezer (Catalogue #297), whose habit it was to write his name
and the date of his acquisition on the title page (2/22/26), and his
name, date, and place, again, at the end of the text, when he had
finished reading it (Edwin Nungezer, Ithaca, New York, October 17,
1926). He underlined and annotated the book as a professor might
(mostly, with a kind of serene confidence, in ink), translating the
Latin as if he knew boobs like me would follow his lead and appreciate
his helpful glosses. I have already quoted one of his interlineations.
My marginalia, in a more cautious pencil, are there now too, so that Ben
Jonson's text, itself a pastiche drawn from the writings of others, has
leaped, by the serendipitous assistance of The Bodley Head's reprint,
across the years between 1641 to 1923, not surely in a single bound but
by means of a few big hops nevertheless, into the professor's pasture a
few years after, and then into mine in 1950, upon the sale of his
estate, whereupon my name, with stiff and self-conscious formality, was
also placed on its title page: William H. Gass, Cornell, '50. Even so,
the book belongs to its scholarly first owner; I have only come into its
possession. I hold it in my hand now, in 1999.

Another book, which is also a library but in a different way, George

Saintsbury's A History of English Prose Rhythm, provides testimony
concerning what happens when the guest is taken to a hostelry of
transformatory power such as Ben Jonson's inn is:

... the selection, coadaptation, and application of the borrowed phrases

to express Ben's views constitute a work more really original than most
utterances that are guiltless of literature.

In setting down the provenance of my copy of Discoveries I have also

done the same for the following sentence, which I put a faint marginal
line beside while researching opinions about metaphor for my
dissertation (now, thank God, a distant memory); it is a sentence that
(having served in several capacities since) I know quite by heart, and
treasure, inasmuch as it is as personal and particular to me now as its
book is, having absorbed so much of myself, like the paper wrapped
around fish and chips.

What a deale of cold busines doth a man mis-spend the better part of

life in! in scattering complements, tendring visits, gathering and
venting newes, following Feasts and Playes, making a little winter-love
in a darke corner.

We shall not understand what a book is, and why a book has the value

many persons have, and is even less replaceable than a person, if we
forget how important to it is its body, the building that has been built
to hold its lines of language safely together through many adventures
and a long time. Words on a screen have visual qualities, to be sure,
and these darkly limn their shape, but they have no materiality, they
are only shadows, and when the light shifts they'll be gone. Off the
screen they do not exist as words. They do not wait to be reseen,
reread; they only wait to be remade, relit. I cannot carry them beneath
a tree or onto a side porch; I cannot argue in their margins; I cannot
enjoy the memory of my dismay when, perhaps after years, I return to my
treasured copy of Treasure Island to find the jam I inadvertently
smeared there still spotting a page precisely at the place where Billy
Bones chases Black Dog out of the Admiral Benbow with a volley of oaths
and where his cutlass misses its mark to notch the inn's wide sign

My copy, which I still possess, was of the cheapest. Published by M. A.

Donohue & Co. of Chicago, it bears no date, and its coarse pages are
jaundiced and brittle, yet they've outlived their manufacturer; they
will outlive their reader--always comforting yet a bit sad. The pages,
in fact, smell their age, their decrepitude, and the jam smear is like
an ancient bruise; but as well as Marcel did by means of his madeleine,
like a scar recalling its accident, I remember the pounding in my chest
when the black spot was pressed into Billy Bones's palm and Blind Pew
appeared on the road in a passage that I knew even then was a piece of
exemplary prose.

That book and I loved each other, and I don't mean just its text: that

book, which then was new, its cover slick and shiny, its paper agleam
with the tossing sea and armed, as Long John Silver was, for a fight,
its binding tight as the elastic of new underwear, not slack as it is
now, after so many openings and closings, so many dry years; that book
would be borne off to my room, where it lived through my high school
miseries in a dime-store bookcase, and it would accompany me to college
too, and be packed in the duffel bag I carried as a sailor. Its body may
have been cheaply made by machine, and there may have been many copies
of this edition printed, but the entire press run has by this time been
dispersed, destroyed, the book's function reduced to its role as my old
school chum, whom I see at an occasional reunion, along with editions of
Malory and Mann, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Hardy and Spengler, gloomy
friends of my gloomy youth. Each copy went forth into bookstores to seek
a purchaser it would make fortunate, and each has had its history of
success or failure since, years of standing among rarity and leather,
say, when suddenly, after a week of weeping that floods the library, it
finds itself in some secondhand ghetto, dumped for a pittance by
customarily callous heirs into a crowd of those said, like cars, to have
been "previously owned."

We all love the "previously owned." We rescue them like orphans from

their Dickensian dismay. I first hold the volume upside down and give
its fanned-out pages a good ruffle, as if I were shaking fruit from a
tree: out will fall toothpicks and hairpins, calling cards and bits of
scrap paper, the well-pressed envelope for a stick of Doublemint gum, a
carefully folded obituary of the book's author, the newsprint having
acidulously shadowed its containing pages, or, now and then, a message,
interred in the text, as I had flutter from a volume once owned by
Arthur Holly Compton (and sold to me by the library of his own
university). It was the rough draft of a telegram to the U.S. High
Commissioner in charge of our occupation troops in Germany requesting
the immediate dispatch of Werner Heisenberg to the United States.

Should we put these feelings for the object and its vicissitudes down to

simple sentimental nostalgia ? to our commonly assumed resistance to I
think not; but even as a stimulus for reminiscence, a treasured more
important than a dance card, or the photo that freezes you in at the
edge of the Grand Canyon, because such a book can be a significant event
in the history of your reading, and your reading (provided you are
significant) should be an essential segment of your character and your
life. Unlike the love we've made or meals we've eaten, books congregate
to form a record around us of what they've fed our stomachs or our
brains. These are not a hunter's trophies but the living animals

In the ideal logotopia, every person would possess his own library and

add at least weekly if not daily to it. The walls of each home would
seem made of books; wherever one looked one would only see spines;
because every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs, and other
compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness. Together they
compose a civilization, or even several. Utopias, however, have the bad
habit of hiding in their hearts those schemes for success, those
requirements of power, rules concerning conduct, which someone will one
day have to carry forward, employ and enforce, in order to achieve them,
and afterward, to maintain the continued purity of their Being. Books
have taught me what true dominion, what right rule, is: it is like the
freely given assent and labor of the reader who will dream the dreams of
the deserving page and expect no more fee than the reward of its words.

A few of us are fortunate enough to live in Logotopia, to own our own

library, but for many this is not possible, and for them we need a free
and open public institution with a balanced collection of books that it
cares for and loans, with stacks where a visitor may wander, browse, and
make discoveries; such an institution empowers its public as few do. In
fact, it has no rival, for the books in the public library are the books
that may take temporary residence in yours or mine. We share their
wealth the way we share the space of a public park. And the benefits
include the education of the body politic, an education upon which the
success of democracy depends, and one that is largely missing from the
thrill-seeking, gossip-mongering, and mindless masses who have been
content to place their governing, as well as their values, faiths, and
future plans, in the hands of the crudest commercial interests. The
myths that moved us to worship in ways preferred and planned by the
Church, or to feel about things in a manner that served the interests of
the State, have less power over our souls now than the latest sale of
shoes, which promise, through the glory of their names, the pleasures of
sex and health and social rank, and give new meaning to the old
expression "leap of faith."

My high school had no library worthy of the name "book," so I would walk

about a mile downtown to the public one to borrow, in almost every case,
a new world. That's what a library does for its patrons. It extends the
self. It is pure empowerment. I would gather my three or four choices,
after deliberations governed by ignorant conjecture, and then, before
leaving, I would sit at one of the long wide tables we associate with
the institution now and read a page or two farther than I had while
standing in the stacks. I scorned the books deemed appropriate for my
age and selected only those I wouldn't understand. Reading what I didn't
understand was, for one blissful period of my life, the source of a
profound if perverse pleasure. I also liked to look at the card pasted
in the back of the book to record previous borrowings--a card that is,
like so much other information, there no longer or discreetly
incomplete. It gave me a good deal of satisfaction to be taking home
some rarely read, symbolically dusty, arcane tome. I checked out both my
books and my pride at the same desk. See, 0 world, what I am reading and
be amazed: Joyce, Wells, Carlyle. Well, Wells I could understand. That,
I would realize later, was what was the matter with him.

And the Saturday that Ulysses was denied me because my ears were too

young to hear its honesty was a large red-letter day, burned upon my
symbolic bosom wherever it was then kept, for on that day I learned what
righteous indignation was; 1 realized what libraries were really for,
just in the moment that my own was failing its function.

Public libraries have succumbed to the same pressures that have

overwhelmed the basic cultural functions of museums and universities,
aims that should remain what they were, not because the old ways are
always better but because in this case they were the right ones: the
sustaining of standards, the preservation of quality, the conservation
of literacy's history, the education of the heart, eye, and mind. Now
libraries devote far too much of their restricted space, and their
limited budget, to public amusement. It is a fact of philistine life
that amusement is where the money is.

Universities attract students by promising them, on behalf of their

parents, a happy present and a comfortable future, and these intentions
are passed along through the system like salmonella until budgets are
cut, research requirements are skimped, and the fundamental formula for
academic excellence is ignored if not forgotten. That formula is: a
great library will attract a great faculty, and a great faculty will
lure good students to its log; good students will go forth and win
renown, endowments will increase, and so will the quality of the
football team, until original aims are lost sight of, academic efforts
slacken, the library stands neglected, the finer faculty slip away, good
students no longer seek such an environment, and the team gets even

The sciences, it is alleged, no longer use books; neither do the

professions, since what everyone needs is data, data day and night,
because data, like drugs, soothe the senses and encourage us to think we
are, when at the peak of their heap, on top of the world. Of course,
libraries contain books, and books contain information, but information
has always been of minor importance, except to minor minds. What matters
is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what
uses it is put. In short, what matters is the book the data's in. I just
employed the expression "It is a fact of philistine life..." That is
exactly what the philistine would like the library to retrieve for it.
Just the facts, ma'am. Because facts can be drawn from the jaws of some
system like teeth; because facts are goods like shoes and shirts and,
well, books. This week the library is having a closeout sale on facts
about deserts. Get yours now. Gobi will be gone soon, the Sahara to

Frequently, one comes across comparisons of the electronic revolution

with that of writing and printing, and these are usually accompanied by
warnings to those suspicious of technology that objections to these
forward marches are both fuddy-duddy and futile. But Plato's worries
that writing would not reveal the writer the way the soul of a speaker
was exposed; that spontaneity would be compromised; that words would be
stolen (as Phaedrus is about to steal them in that profound, beautifully
written dialogue), and words would be put in other mouths than those of
their authors; that writing does not hear its reader's response; that
lying, hypocrisy, false borrowing, ghostwriting, would increase so that
the hollow heads of state would echo with hired words; and that, oddly,
the advantages and powers of the book would give power and advantage to
the rich, who would learn to read and would have the funds to acquire
and keep such precious volumes safe: these fears were overwhelmingly

The advent of printing was opposed (as writing was) for a number of mean

and self-serving reasons, but the fear that it would lead to the making
of a million half-baked brains, and cause the illicit turning of a
multitude of untrained heads, as a consequence of the unhindered spread
of nonsense was a fear that was also well founded. The boast that the
placement of books in many hands would finally overthrow superstition
was not entirely a hollow hope, however. The gift gave a million minds a
chance at independence.

It was the invention of photography, I remember, that was supposed to

run painters out of business. What it did, of course, was make artists
out of them, not grandiose or sentimental describers. And the pixelation
of pictures has rendered their always dubious veracity as unbelievable
as any other shill for a system. If blessings are mixed, so are
calamities. I note also that although the horse-drawn coach or wagon
nowadays carries rubes in a circle around Central Park, there are more
horses alive and well in the world than there ever were.

So will there be books. And if readers shut their minds down the better

to stare at pictures that rarely explain themselves; and if readers
abandon reading to swivel-hip their way through the interbunk, picking
up scraps of juicy data here and there and rambling on the e-mail in
that new fashion of grammatical decay, the result will be to make real
readers, then chief among the last who are left with an ability to
reason, rulers. Books made the rich richer. Books will make the smart

The elevator, at first, seemed merely helpful, and the high-rise

splendid against the night sky--what you could see of it. Recordings
allow us to hear a few elevating strains from the "Ode to Joy" several
times a day, the genius long ago beaten out of it. And those miracles of
modern electronics that have allowed us to communicate quickly, easily,
cheaply, gracelessly with every part of the world permit us to do so in
private and in every remove from face to face. Air travel is
comfortable, affordable, and swift (right?) and enables us to ignore
geography, just as we ignore climate, because we have HVAC and, in
addition, can purchase terrible tomatoes any season of the year from
stores that are open all night.

Books in libraries, however awful some of them assuredly are, have been

screened by editors who have a stake in their quality and their success.
Once on shelves, they may receive from readers the neglect they deserve.
But at the end of all those digital delivery channels thrives a
multitude of pips whose continuous squeaking has created static both
loud and distressing. Amid the sound of a million popoffs, how shall we
hear and identify a good thought when it pops out?

The library is meant to satisfy the curiosity of the curious, offer to

stuff students with facts, provide a place for the lonely where they may
enjoy the companionship and warmth of the word. It is supposed to supply
handbooks for the handy, novels for insomniacs, scholarship for the
scholarly, and make available works of literature to those individuals
they will eventually haunt so successfully; these readers, in
self-defense, will bring them finally to life.

More important than any of these traditional things, I think, is the

environment of books the library puts its visitors in and the
opportunity for discovery that open stacks make possible. When I wish to
look up a word--"golliwogg," which I've encountered spelled with two
g's--or when I wish to plenish my mind with some information, say, about
the ill-fated Library at Alexandria, why don't I simply hit the right
keys on my machine, where both a dictionary and an encyclopedia are
imprisoned? Well, I might, if the spelling of "golliwog" were all I
wished to know, if researches, however large or small, were not great
pleasures in themselves, full of serendipity; for I have rarely paged
through one of my dictionaries (a decent household will have a dozen)
without my eye lighting, along the way, on words more beautiful than a
found fall leaf, on definitions odder than any uncle, on grotesques such
as "gonadotropin-releasing hormone" or, barely above
it--what?--"gombeen," which turns out to be Irish for usury. I wonder if
Ezra Pound knew that.

Similarly, when I walk through the library stacks in search of a number

I have copied from the card catalogue, my eyes are not watching my feet
or aimlessly airing themselves; they are intently shelf-shopping,
running along all those intriguing spines, all those lovely shapes and
colors and sizes. That is how, one day, I stopped before a thick
yellow-backed book that gave its name in pale blue letters: The Sot-Weed
Factor. Although published by Doubleday, so there was probably nothing
of value in it, I still pulled the book from its place. What did the
title mean? I read the first page, as is my habit. Page 1 and page 99
are my test spots. Then I bore it home, neglecting to retrieve the book
for which I had begun my search. Instead, for two days, in a trance of
delight and admiration, I read John Barth's novel. That is why I stroll
through the encyclopedia, why I browse the shelves.

One does not go to a library once, look around, and leave as if having

seen it. Libraries are not monuments or sights or notable piles:
churches by Wren, villas by Palladio. Libraries, which acquire the books
we cannot afford, retain the many of which we are ignorant, the spate of
the new and the detritus of ancient life; libraries, which preserve what
we prize and would adore; which harbor the neglected until their time to
set forth again is marked, restoring the worn and ignoring fashion and
repulsing prejudice. Libraries are for life, centers to which we are
recycled, as recursive as reading itself.

If I am speaking to you on the phone, watching your tinted shadows cross

the screen, downloading your message from my machine, I am in indirect
inspection, in converse, with you; but when I read the book you've
written, you are as absent as last year, distant as Caesar's reign.
Before my eyes, asking for my comprehension, where I stand in the stacks
or sit in the reading room, are your thoughts and feelings, hopes and
fears, set down in sentences and paragraphs and pages.., but in words
not yours, meanings not mine, rather words and meanings that are the

Yes, we call it recursive, the act of reading, of looping the loop, of

continually returning to an earlier group of words, behaving like
Penelope by moving our mind back and forth, forth and back, reweaving
what's unwoven, undoing what's been done; and language, which regularly
returns us to its origin, which starts us off again on the same journey,
older, altered, Columbus one more time but better prepared each later
voyage, knowing a bit more, ready for more, equal to a greater range of
tasks, calmer, confident. After all, we've come this way before, have
habits that help and a favoring wind; language like that is the language
that takes us inside, inside the sentence--inside--inside the
mind--inside--inside where meanings meet and are modified, reviewed, and
revised, where no perception, no need, no feeling or thought, need be
scanted or shunted aside.

I read around in this reprinted book I've rescued until I stumble

on-discover--my sentence, my marvel, my new found land.

What a deale of cold busines doth a man mis-spend the better part of

life in! in scattering complements, tendring visits, gathering and
venting newes, following Feasts and Playes, making a little winter-love
in a darke comer.

This sentence is a unit of human consciousness. It disposes its elements

like the bits and pieces of a collage, and even if a number of artists
were given the same materials: say, a length of ribbon, empty manila
folder, cellophane wrapping, sheet of blue paper, postage stamp,
shocking-pink crayon; or a number of writers were allowed a few
identical words and asked to form a phrase--with "was," for instance,
out of "that," or "fair," or "then," and "all"--they'd not arrange them
in the same way, make the same object, or invariably ask, in some
wonder, "then was all that fair?" as if a point were being made in a
debate. Among them, only James Joyce would write of paradise, in
Finnegans Wake, "then all that was, was fair."

In this process of constituting a unit of human perception, thought, and

feeling, which will pass like every other phase of consciousness into
others--one hopes--still more integrated and interesting, nothing is
more frequently overlooked or more vital to language than its pace and
phrasing: factors, if this were ballet, we would never neglect, because
we are well aware how the body of the dancer comes to a periodic point
of poise before beginning another figure; and how the central movement
of the torso is graced and amplified by the comportment of the arms, the
tilt of the head and smile of the eyes; and how the diagram of one
gesture is made to flow into another; and how the dancer must land from
a leap, however wide or high, as if a winged seed; and how the energy of
movement is controlled by the ease of its execution within the beat and
mood and color of the music until we see one unified flow of expression.
So too must the language keep its feet and move with grace, disclosing
one face first before allowing another, reserving certain signals until
the end, when they will reverberate through the sentence like a shout
down a street, and the vowels will open and close like held hands, and
the consonants will moan like maybe someone experiencing pleasure, and
the reader will speed along a climbing clause, or sigh into a periodic
stop full of satisfaction at this ultimate release of meaning: a little
winter-love in a dark comer.

Every day, from the library, books are borrowed and taken away like tubs

of chicken to be consumed, though many are also devoured on the
premises, in the Reading Room, where traditionally the librarian,
wearing her cliches, shushes an already silent multitude and glares at
the offending air. Yet there, or in someone's rented room, or even by a
sunny pool--who can predict the places where the encounter will
occur?--the discovery will be made. And a finger will find the place and
mark it before the book's covers come closed; or its reader will rise
and bear her prize out of the library into the kitchen, back to her dorm
room, or, along with flowers and candy, to a bedside, in a tote bag onto
the beach; or perhaps a homeless scruffy, who has been huddling near a
radiator, will leave the volume behind him when he finally goes, as if
what his book said had no hold on his heart, because he cannot afford a
card. Yet, like Columbus first espying land, each will have discovered
what he or she cares about, will know at last what it is to love--a
commonplace occurrence--for, in the library, such epiphanies, such
enrichments of mind and changes of heart, are the stuff of every day.

PHOTO (COLOR): A Book of Common Prayer, by Miriam Schaer, 1996. Courtesy

of The Rotunda Gallery / Brooklyn Information and Culture

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Shades, by Robert Rauschenberg, 1964. Courtesy of

the Museum of Modern Art, New York City

PHOTO (COLOR): Fixer 3/26/97, by Berwyn Hung. Courtesy Gallery of South

Orange, New Jersey

PHOTO (COLOR): Scarpidon, by Steven C. Daiber, 1990-98. Courtesy Gallery

of South Orange, New Jersey

PHOTO (COLOR): Everything in the World, by Janet Zweig and Laura

Bergman, 1996. Courtesy Janet Zweig

PHOTO (COLOR): Frosting, by Meg Belichick, 1991. Courtesy of The Rotunda

Gallery/Brooklyn Information and Culture


By William H. Gass

William H. Gass, author of Finding a Form and Reading Rilke, is the

director of the International Writers Center at Washington University in
St. Louis. His most recent essay for Harper's Magazine, "Shears of the
Censor," appeared in the April 1997 issue.


Copyright of Harper's Magazine is the property of Harper's Magazine
Foundation and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple
sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express
written permission. However, users may print, download, or email
articles for individual use.
Source: Harper's Magazine, Nov99, Vol. 299 Issue 1794, p45, 7p
Item: 2405684

The database is protected by copyright © 2016
send message

    Main page