Write of passage

Janice Pariat | Updated on March 22, 2019 Published on March 22, 2019

Final word: The Book is symbolic of a way of knowing, interpreting and documenting the world that dismisses all others   -  ISTOCK.COM

Not everything that’s important is found only in books; not all that must be known is written

I am tired of The Book. Which is a strange declaration for a “literary” column, I know. But it hasn’t been an easy realisation for me to have come to either. I’m a writer, after all. I write, well, books.

To clarify, I’m tired of The Book as an object. Increasingly, a fetishisation seems to have set in around The Book.

We love books, we horde books, we click #bookselfies to post on social media, we display them prominently in our lives, from our living rooms to tote bags to coffee mugs. We love the smell of new books, of old books. We resurrect books through cut-out art, and papier-mâché, we turn them into Christmas trees and furniture. We carry them with us on our travels. We’re mistrustful of Kindles and other such “soulless” reading gadgets. We follow Instagram accounts that collate pictures of people reading on buses, on trains. One might say — despite cries of “no one’s reading” flying around — we’re book-obsessed.

Oddly enough, what might have spurred this hyper-bibliophilia is precisely our collective fear that “reading is dying”, that “no one reads anymore”, that “bookshops are closing”. So much has been made of keeping reading alive that we now live in a world of intense and perpetual book fervour. This kind of book fervour is a few years old now, but as the recent backlash to Marie Kondo’s dry suggestion that most people only need 30 books indicates, it’s far from gone.

Recently, in an article titled ‘The Puppet Master’ in The Baffler, writer BD McClay attempted to explain why John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner (which she and I both found tediously dull) saw such massive popularity. One of the reasons she cites is the fetishisation of the book as an object.

“Books now exist as book-objects; they are written by writers, loved by ‘book lovers’, made into lists, declared important. As objects they can be staged, as purveyors of relatability they can be used. But there’s a pervasive sense that they aren’t really meant to be read, critically evaluated, hated, or loved,” McClay writes.

Admittedly, all this while I’ve played my part in contributing to “book fervour”. I’ve prided myself on having what I like to call an “artisanal” relationship with my books. The ones I’ve written, I mean. I like to be involved beyond the editorial — with layout and font, and, especially, cover design. “A book is an object,” I’d say often. “It must look beautiful.”

How many of us also feel this way about the books we collect to place on our shelves? I have friends who buy editions of books they already own because the new ones are “prettier”. “Books,” cover designers will soon be saying, “must be Instagrammable.” I’m guilty, among others, I’m sure, of choosing to photograph books to post on social media. And then never getting down to actually reading them.

As McClay says, “Many books could probably exist as a meticulously produced hardcover full of blank pages — not because they are bad, but because increasingly they do not exist to be read in the first place.” To not read the books we’re obsessed with displaying is a terrible thing.

My disquiet around the fetishisation of books, though, runs deeper. Perhaps because I come from a community with a history of strong oral traditions, displaced and largely destroyed by the imposition of the traditions of reading and writing by Christian missionaries. The Book in print is upheld, revered, as an object of completeness, truth, and authority — and takes primacy always over the oral, the spoken. The Book is symbolic of a way of knowing, interpreting and documenting the world that dismisses all others.

In this, I share the dismay of Jay Griffiths, who says in her book (yes, the irony is not lost on me) Wild: An Elemental Journey, that while for the Amazonians, for example, knowledge is “wild and wet” and passed on orally, “wet and fluent from lip to lip”, for missionaries this was devilish. For them, “knowledge should come from dry paper, made from dead trees, or be given soberly on dry stone tablets, not drunk, drunkenly, from the moist world of the living.”

According to Griffiths, this kind of disconnect has dire ecological consequences. Western school systems, heavily reliant on The Book, ferociously promote “literacy” which she calls “an epistemology of the built world, physically in libraries in towns, but metaphorically too, the constructed artifice of our written culture, book-bound, which encourages our philosophies and values to move farther away from nature.” This is obviously not a radical call to abandon reading. It is merely an invitation to re-evaluate The Book; to seek to contextualise it appropriately within its history; to gain perspective. We need to acknowledge that not everything that’s important is found only in books. That not all that must be known, or understood, is written.

Consider this a nudge to reassess our hyper-bibliophilic narrative. Books are important, but so are other less theoretical forms of knowledge, other equally transportive storytelling traditions, other equally powerful ways of connecting to ourselves and the world.

Janice Pariat   -  BLink


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart

Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on March 22, 2019
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