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.