Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, October 1, 2010

the world between two covers

I don't think I understand all of William Germano’s essay on what books are good for.

“I've been wondering lately when books became the enemy.” Wait — are they “the enemy”? For whom?

“I'm struck by the fact that the designation ‘scholarly book,’ to name one relevant category, is in itself a back formation, like ‘acoustic guitar.’ Books began as works of great seriousness, mapping out the religious and legal dimensions of culture. In a sense, books were always scholarly. Who could produce them but serious people?” Okay, so are all “serious people” scholars? Virgil was a serious person, and he wrote books: was he then a scholar? Is the Aeneid a “scholarly book”? In some sense we could answer yes to both of the latter two questions, but only at the cost of misleading.

But then comes the part I like. Germano makes “the case for books” by playing on various meanings of the word “case” and then concluding: “So what are books good for? My best answer is that books produce knowledge by encasing it.” The value of books is then linked to some concept of wholeness, completion — of a story told from beginning to end.

Each single-author book is immensely particular, a story told as only one storyteller could recount it. Scholarship is a collagist, building the next iteration of what we know book by book. Stories end, and that, I think, is a very good thing. A single authorial voice is a kind of performance, with an audience of one at a time, and no performance should outstay its welcome. Because a book must end, it must have a shape, the arc of thought that demonstrates not only the writer's command of her or his subject but also that writer's respect for the reader. A book is its own set of bookends.

I like this because I make a similar argument in my review of the Oxford Companion to the Book, forthcoming in the next issue of Books & Culture. (I’ll link to it when it becomes available online, though I don't know when that will be.) For Germano, this sense of wholeness and completion is intimately — I think he might say necessarily — linked to the codex. I’m not sure about that, but it’s plausible. Certainly it is the physical form of the codex that undergirds some of the most powerful uses of the book as metaphor — for instance, these lines from the end of Dante’s Paradiso (I cite the Hollander translation):

O plenitude of grace, by which I could presume

to fix my eyes upon eternal light

until my sight was spent on it!

In its depth I saw contained,

by love into a single volume bound,

the pages scattered through the universe. . . .

See also the chapter called “The Book as Symbol” in that monument of philological scholarship, Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.

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