Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Books Are Not, Necessarily, Meant to Be Read

I recently had a conversation with Elazar Benyoëtz, a German poet-o-philosopher, about the object called a book. He believes that "people are misunderstanding the function of books; books are not meant, necessarily, to be read".

Benyoëtz's library consists of thousands and thousands of books that are practically everywhere: walls, floor, closets, boxes, jackets' pockets... He lives with his books not only physically, but also emotionally: he can vividly depict any possible detail about any of them - the content, of course, but also any related element of meta-data - the cover, the smell, the touch; the author; the time; the space.

And yet, "books are not, necessarily, meant to be read". According to Benyoëtz, books are potentials. If you wish, they are the early ancestors of Schrödinger's cat. As long as they are not read, standing still on the shelf or piled up on the floor, they represent a potential parallel world. Once they are opened - well, at that point the potential is gone.

"I find it much more fascinating to write about a book that I have never read than about a book that I have read", says Benyoëtz, following the logic of books-as-potentials.

But there's much more to this approach than the romantic allusion to the knight on the white horse; Benyoëtz is serious about the impact of closed books, of those potentials, on his existence. The lives of potential-readers are affected by their physical proximity to books, as if those potential-worlds exert their gravitational power from within the cover. "I would have been a completely different writer if I didn't have those books around me, just as I would have been a completely different writer if I have read them".

I'm not sure if books are potentials only in the physical proximity to a potential-reader, like those noiseless falling forest trees, or that books are potentials independently of us. It doesn't really matter. What's important is the new perspective on this row of parallel worlds, of collective intelligence, placed on a shelf. Probably the books inter-communicate, creating bounds and links among different realities; probably they affect the human beings in their surrounding, in much the same way that thoughts affect water (and, human beings are 80% water, Dr. Masaru Emoto, What The Bleep).

My intuition tells me that this perspective is pertinent to the understanding of our relationships with Cyberspace, the new emerging medium of our live-and-kicking collective intelligence. As I presented in an earlier post, it is no longer clear who controls who (web is an extension, a subordinate, of man, or man is an extension, a subordinate, of web), nor who needs the other for its/his/her existence.

Also, it would be interesting to investigate the alterations in the notions of 'physical proximity' and 'a book' under the web paradigm. For instance, does adding a new RSS feed to my feed reader is equivalent to purchasing a book and placing it on my shelf? Am I affected by unread RSS feeds in the same way that those closed books in my library affect me?


1. There are more than 263,000 pictures of "personal" books on Flickr.

2. Throughout history, books have been burned, just like human beings. In ancient times, books were handed over to the hangman for termination. Wikipedia has an interesting entry on book burning.

Heinrich Heine: "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" ("Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings.")

Image licensed under the GFDL by the photographer, Gregory Maxwell.

3. Feed Burner? Think again. :-)

4. The above great shot of Parallel Worlds is from Still Memory.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merci pour cet article que je suis parvenue à lire en entier, avec plaisir et connivence. j'ai moi-même pu vérifier le pouvoir magique des livres quand l'un d'eux s'est adressé à moi en tombant spontanément d'une étage : L'attraction passionnée de Fourrier. A l'époque, cet événement résonna comme coup de tonnerre dans le désert

11:30 AM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Merci Muriel

11:44 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

When a book is written, isn't it written to be read? I suppose I could talk to the wall for the pleasure of hearing my own voice or to work something out but it seems kind of silly to spend so much energy merely to bolster local gravitation in the world's libraries. If books were only potentials there would be no books.

That said, I do agree with the idea of unread books changing us. Thinking about starting a conversation with someone can force us to have conversations with ourselves we never would have had in the first place. Same with books – if you consider reading a book to be like conversing with the author.

Thanks, for the excellent post.

Ian Stewart

11:48 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Hi Ian

Hence, the insistence on the word “Necessarily”.
But there is more.
“Reading” has many flavors; so when we say “Reading” to which of the flavors do we refer to?
There’s the linear, synchronous kind of reading that which starts with one cover and never ends till it gets to the other side of the book. When we ask “Have you read that book?” we usually are referring to this act of Reading, and yet this act is by far, imho, not the most popular one.
Some people, for instance, can only do with speed reading, or with “Diagonal Reading”.
Others read, in principle, only a certain portion of the book. There’s a well known literature critic who acknowledged reading, in principle, the first 30 pages of any book. When asked about the ethics behind it, he insisted that the first 30 pages contain it all: the draft of the story, the talent of the author etc.
More others read a page here and a page there; they read the cover, they read about the author in Wikipedia – and they are completely ok with it.
Others treat their books as a fetish.
More others, myself included, watch their piles of books and say “You can take me, Devil, when I’m through reading them all”, making sure the piles will never cease to grow.
Wittgenstein admitted in his last interview that he never read Aristotle. Still, I’m sure that he lived with Aristotle’s books in a very intimate fashion.

For all of the above, the act of Reading is continuous; the relationships with the book are always under construction. Books are a never ending story.

Ian, thanks for you comment which made me think about “Reading”.

6:55 AM  

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