10 May 2012

What an Astonishing Thing a Book Is

This is Tony Miksak with a few Words on Books...

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."     - Carl Sagan

These days easily before breakfast we can read an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, read the account and see photographs of a trip to Fukushima, Japan, where radiation and tsunami have devastated the lives of children, be sent a Carl Sagan quote by a friend on Facebook, read tributes to the late children's author Maurice Sendak, and be invited to a meeting of Expatriate writers in Rome, even though you currently are located 4,559 miles from Italy.

My parents' lives began in the final days of horse-drawn conveyances and the early days of automobiles. They both were teenagers in the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. They lived through two World Wars, the advent of radio, then TV and then the Internet, the booming 50's, and well into the our present age of 24-hour news anxiety.

I was born months before two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and continued through the terror of unstoppable polio and smallpox epidemics and their virtual eradication, the Joe McCarthy-led anti-Communist hysteria, wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, global terrorism and the overreaction to it, the assassination, impeachment and resignation of Presidents, the decline of public education, the rebirth of electric cars, the melting of the ice caps, the end of the Soviet Empire and our first black President, now personally in favor of the concept of same sex marriage.

Peering from space at those arcs of life you could easily imagine a sort of ever faster downward spiral into ignorance and conflict. Or you could look out the spaceship window to find the sun still shining, the air breathable, pets and friends happy most of the time, at least around here.

For me the adventure continues – skills to sharpen, things to learn, places to visit, people to meet. As I get older my world only gets larger. Since retirement a few years ago my wife and I have spent time in South America and Easter Island, in France, England, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Norway; soon we will visit Turkey, Crete and Croatia and Italy again. Plus Hawaii for fish and Arcata for chamber music.

Another arc of life began last August when granddaughter Nora arrived, a new perfect human. Along with Nora came a renewal of love and friendship with my daughter.

And throughout all these lives, new and not so new, are the books we've read and will soon read. Our various books are windows into other worlds, but more than that, the best of them ARE in fact other worlds. Each book on our shelves or stacked nearby glows with potential or radiates memories, awaits only one more open mind in order to speak again.

Before breakfast I spotted a cartoon that got me started on this essay today. Two gentlemen are conversing in a private library somewhere. One man is peering at a tall stack of empty bookshelves. Perched at eye level amid all the emptiness are several small metal things.

"Nook, Sony Reader," the first gentleman intones. "I say, Hardwick, this sure is an impressive library."

The cartoon was posted on Facebook, and has elicited dozens of comments and 90 shares – among additional sets of friends. One comment stood out:

"A home without books is like a garden without flowers. It is like a place without sunshine in your heart. Electronic books will never replace the BEAUTY of a well designed book, of the joy holding its making and creation in your hands and enjoying a feast for your eyes."

No matter how beautiful a book may be, how big, how small, how the paper feels and the cover looks – reduced to an E book any book is the same size, shape and feel as all the others. No subtlety, no heft and weight, no beautiful paper or well-stitched binding. No physical difference from one reading unit to another.

The words remain, and you can make them yours. Civilization has been rendered more portable, but perhaps not more beautiful or useful.

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