24 January 2005

I Heart Libraries

"Literary culture as we have known it and understood it since scribes were writing on papyrus is not the bonus of civilisation but intrinsic to civilisation itself, and the printed book, mysteriously, is the form that turns out to be irreplaceable. In the great libraries or the bookshelf at home, knowledge roots itself and imagination flowers. The availability of books, from poetry to textbooks, makes the garden grow and it's everybody's garden"
~ from Tom Stoppard's love letter to the London Library (via Literary Saloon)

And there's more!

A couple months ago, Umberto Eco gave a lecture at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt on the future of books, where he proclaimed, "The idea that a new technology abolishes a previous one is frequently too simplistic" (via Conversational Reading).

Such wonderful things he had to say!

Libraries, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them.

One could equate this to Babel (following Borges' lead) or see this comparison as an example of humanity reflecting the Divine image ("In the beginning was the Word").

Up to now, books still represent the most economical, flexible, wash-and-wear way to transport information at a very low cost. Computer communication travels ahead of you; books travel with you and at your speed. If you are shipwrecked on a desert island, where you don't have the option of plugging in a computer, a book is still a valuable instrument. Even if your computer has solar batteries, you cannot easily read it while lying in a hammock. Books are still the best companions for a shipwreck, or for the day after the night before. Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors.

I'm reminded of Annie Dillard in The Writing Life: "The line of words is a miner's pick, a wood-carver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow."

Back to Eco:

A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. If I utter the sentence, "This morning I had for breakfast...", for example, the dictionary allows me to list many possible items, provided they are all organic. But if I definitely produce my text and utter, "This morning I had for breakfast bread and butter", then I have excluded cheese, caviar, pastrami and apples. A text castrates the infinite possibilities of a system. The Arabian Nights can be interpreted in many, many ways, but the story takes place in the Middle East and not in Italy, and it tells, let us say, of the deeds of Ali Baba or of Scheherazade and does not concern a captain determined to capture a white whale or a Tuscan poet visiting Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Take a fairy tale, like
Little Red Riding Hood. The text starts from a given set of characters and situations -- a little girl, a mother, a grandmother, a wolf, a wood -- and through a series of finite steps arrives at a solution. Certainly, you can read the fairy tale as an allegory and attribute different moral meanings to the events and to the actions of the characters, but you cannot transform Little Red Riding Hood into Cinderella. Finnegan's Wake is certainly open to many interpretations, but it is certain that it will never provide you with a demonstration of Fermat's last theorem, or with the complete bibliography of Woody Allen. This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of many deconstructionists was to believe that you can do anything you want with a text. This is blatantly false.

And what is this? you ask.
A lifeline, I reply.

I've been drowning in self-doubt and the examination and reexamination of my motives for grad school and the importance of literature--primarily due to the Harwood book listed on the left. (He won me over early on, and now I'm questioning the analytic (read: academic) framework of modernism and, by extension, postmodernism.) But Eco is clear on this point. There are boundaries, and I'm quite justified in my reasons for wanting to explore my chosen "closed universe." (It also makes me really want to pick up The Limits of Interpretation. "Limits" sounds much more agreeable than "Poverty," doesn't it?)

Indeed, in a role-play game one could rewrite Waterloo such that Grouchy arrived with his men to rescue Napoleon. But the tragic beauty of Hugo's Waterloo is that the readers feel that things happen independently of their wishes. The charm of tragic literature is that we feel that its heroes could have escaped their fate but they do not succeed because of their weakness, their pride, or their blindness. Besides, Hugo tells us, "Such a vertigo, such an error, such a ruin, such a fall that astonished the whole of history, is it something without a cause? No... the disappearance of that great man was necessary for the coming of the new century. Someone, to whom none can object, took care of the event... God passed over there, Dieu a passé."

That is what every great book tells us, that God passed there, and He passed for the believer as well as for the sceptic. There are books that we cannot re-write because their function is to teach us about necessity, and only if they are respected such as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. Their repressive lesson is indispensable for reaching a higher state of intellectual and moral freedom.


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