Have books lost their power?
Maybe, maybe not. I was reminded of their power the other day when I stopped by to visit my iconography teacher’s latest class. While there I spent some time combing through the bookshelves where I found a big, heavy, whale of a book called The Crucible of Christianity, edited by Arnold Toynbee. Printed in 1969, the book, at 10 ½ by 14 inches is, well, heavy. The pages are lined with text and full of illustrations, drawings, maps and plans. As I lugged the book to the car, a group of five girls on bicycles appeared out of nowhere. The leader, an Hispanic girl of about seven or eight years old, hopped off her bike and ran over to touch the book–with the other girls following suit. She spoke quickly—in Spanish–to them as her hand move up and down the book’s length. I opened the pages and they all leaned forward; they spoke among themselves. Apparently excited about the book’s sheer size and weight, they urged me to turn pages amidst their oohs and ahs. Their small fingers brushed the text and pointed to photographs of sculptures and Roman cityscapes. The young leader wanted more. She held the book, turned the pages, felt the paper. This exploration lasted for another fifteen minutes.
Finally, I had to go and she reluctantly released the book.
In this modern-day culture that is so stimulated by visual media it is tempting to think the day of the book has long gone. I know I fall prey to those dark thoughts when I think of how our culture is so defined by movies, TV, and video games. Even music must share its bed with video today. Now and then the power of the written word in its ability to capture the imagination sweeps across the landscape. You saw it with the tsunami-like wave that defined the Harry Potter phenomena. Who would have thought a major literary event in today’s world would come about through children’s books? An event so strong it would propel its author into billionaire status? Whether you put J.K. Rowling’s efforts into the “literary” category or not, it is hard to ignore the books, their effect is palpable. Children are suddenly seeking books that are made up of hundreds of pages; boys—even those in the hard-to-reach 8-12 year range—are, gasp, reading them.
Yet, literary salons are pretty much a thing of the past. Think back to the last time you tried to discuss a book you had read. How long before the conversation shifted to movies? Not long, I bet. Among writers you can pretty much set your clock by the length of time they’re able keep the conversation confined to books: twenty minutes tops. Try it. It’s almost impossible for them to stay focused on books. Someone will suddenly insert something about a movie and once that happens, the book conversation is lost. I often wonder if the reverse happens among screen writers. Does their talk of movies turn into a conversation about books? Not likely. What that says about today’s writers is, perhaps, fodder for another day.
I confess I am not a movie buff. I am an antiquated, boring, confirmed bibliophile. I love books. I love their feel: the texture of the pages, the roughness of the binding, the smell arising from fanned pages. I revel in being surrounded by the many books that line my seventeen bookcases, stack upon my three desks and pile my sundry tables. But that is only the pure physicality of books, even more alluring is knowing that a mind is at work on every page. That, for me, is the most intimate aspect of any book: its ability to engage the reader in a conversation with the author. The pages of my books are filled with the resulting marginalia. More than movies, more than TV, books engage me, they stir my imagination.
Now you may point to the girls’ interest in the images to account for their prolonged contact with the book, and that may hold some truth; but I also saw how they reacted when they simply tried to hold the book in their small hands and turn the pages. The girls were engaged on so many more sensory levels than simply that of the visual. I don’t know if the experience will stay with any of the girls or if it will have any impact, but I do know those moments will remain with me for a very long time.