THE DREAM YOU HOLD -- Books As Friends
Four Metaphors for Books, Offered as Aid to the New Electronic Bookbinders










He sits next to you on the bus and you wonder!

He has thick glasses and very bad skin, even though he is in his forties. It used to be acne, but then as he got older, it stopped being acne and started being a dry red infection that ran down his chin and down his chest, and (of course) ran in shiny streaks across his cheeks and across his forehead. The infection corroded all parts of his nose: the bridge, the nostrils, even the tip. You'd think the tip of a man's nose would be immune from a burning and scaly disease that is hideous to see (and smells like sweet rot), but these are the things we call luck.

Can you imagine anybody getting sexually excited for this man? It would be hard to believe, right? As his sunken chest moves up and down with his ragged asthma, he seems to collapse behind the weight of his wristwatch as if it is a shield. You observe that the best thing going for him is that he is not homeless (he wears a belt), and that he has all of his fingers, even though they are so stubby that you have to count the knuckles to make sure. If you are the kind of person who has empathy for people, you hope he has no moral qualms about hiring a prostitute who will touch him for an amount of money that he can afford, so that he does not go for years without human warmth.

Are you busy?

Let's follow this man and see where he goes. It will be easy. He will not worry about being followed. He has never been followed in his entire life.

He gets off of the bus from his job working in the back of a grocery store (not the front of the grocery store, where the people are trying to buy food) and he passes by the local bar where many of his peers go after work. He does not go in, although he smiles forlornly at a woman in the window who is wiping down the bar with a wet washcloth. She is just any ol' woman, really. She does not smile back, but she looks away without panic, and so he is happy. Our man stops off at a convenience store to buy a six-pack of expensive beer, and a hot sandwich wrapped in greasy, white paper. Outside again, he takes his six-pack and holds the cold cans to his inflamed forehead in the street, and then he continues on his way.

He lives on the top floor of a ten-story building in a neighborhood without children or fire hydrants, and it is good that he does not plan on ever moving. There is no elevator. He has accumulated some furniture over the years, and has paid money to have it humped up the stairs by workmen to whom he does not speak, but for whom he leaves glasses of lemonade on the banister.

Every wall in his apartment is a bookcase stuffed with books. Stacks of books as high as his rotten nose form trails between the rooms. Most of the available space on his lacquered pine work desk is also covered in literature. There is no television; no pet. This man walks into his apartment, and he sees his friends -- his books -- and all in a flash, he is no longer living a life worthy of pity, if he ever was.

He does not see you peering into his window, so you keep watching. He takes off all of his clothes and lounges in his stained briefs on his overstuffed, terrycloth sofa. His fingers dance over the high, teetering book-stacks surrounding him and they light on a new science fiction novel that he purchased yesterday on his walk home.

He reads fast. Science-fiction fast.

He cracks open a beer and begins to eat his sandwich. He laughs out loud at the description of a robot with peculiar habits. He reads passages out loud to himself as the sun sets. He lights candles and turns on some music and continues reading. As he finishes the book, he paces around his living room with one hand tugging a patch of hair on his chin. And then he places the book on the shelves and stares at it for awhile, hugging his elbows and muttering the last line to himself over and over again.

You tap on the window and he spins around, shocked. He comes over and opens the shutter, deciding you are not a villain. He steps outside and joins you on the fire escape.

"So," you say. "Your life seems kind of messy. Books everywhere. Have you considered turning your collection into electronic books that will let you have all kinds of room for lounging and being happy?"

"Why would I want to keep my books out of sight?" he asks. "I have many books that I bought on the strength of their covers, and if they were out of sight, how would I remember to read them?"

"Yeah," you say, not really committed to this argument.

"Looking at them reminds me of their stories. I am not blind yet. I like to see my chums and cronies. Also, what about books that I have borrowed from people?"

You both go inside and he closes the window on the outside world and draws the blinds.

"Maybe this electronic book reader would have some kind of virtual wall of shelves," you say.

"Somebody would hit me on the head and steal it," says the man. "I know my luck. Anyway, these books are direct lines to the souls of people I love -- dead people who were once like me, and living people who are building their own tombs. I am talking about the books themselves, not their strings of code and content. I pay cash for my books, and they can't be tracked. When I am reading, I am all alone with an author. We are communing. Someday, I will die in a hospital with no one around but brisk nurses and sports-loving medical professionals. But on my bedside table will be a friend, because I have lived a deep life of love and communion, all alone, all in secret."

"Yeah," you say again, wondering if he'd let you borrow that collection of Brecht plays. "But what are you going to do when all of the world's literature is collected for free on the internet and nobody sells new books anymore?"

"If nobody sells new books, then who would write them?"

"Perverts," you say. "Criminals. The psychotic parasites of the underclass. Pornographers. Wretches. Roaches. The kind of people who fall asleep dreaming of holocaust in the night, or who look at the demarcations of their physical bodies and feel revulsion, shame, and paranoia. The kind of people who build an imagination out of insanity and then rest there."

"Maybe I could be a writer," says the man, experimentally. He offers you a beer. You take it.


A book never changes. Only you change. That's one of the big reasons that books get written: so that the alienated can participate in some kind of immortality. So they can fix a part of themselves in an unchanging block, like a brick, that stacked, and stacked, and stacked, forms a library, which is the structural image of the condensed and clotted human soul -- in conflict, in agony -- but ordered.

In a trench, with the bombs flying overhead, and your face spattered with the blood of your friends (or your own blood, or your enemy's blood) a book in your hand is a link to this library -- this eternal chunk of thought and hope and despair. An individual book is a face (a face you choose) of this eternal best friend who always has something interesting to say, a pretty story to tell, or a horrible thing to show you to make you gasp.

Graveside or at the end of the world, a book is humanity's open hand. Anyone may read a book, and anyone may profit by it. These bricks, with the mortar of imagination, create a structure that few see anymore, but which nonetheless remains. The structure remains, and the challenge to the electronic bookbinders is to create this structure in code from the lumps of paper reality scattered around the globe like shredded newspaper lining the cage of a canary.

What awful and immense thing can you make? Every book stands for every other book. What faces will you fashion for our flat little ambassadors, and how will you let us communicate with this structure beyond them, this living castle of our tenuous faith -- this Babel -- this Pequod -- this Purgatorio?

This pal?

Posted by miracle on Mon, 28 Jul 2008 13:47:21 -0400 -- permanent link

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