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










Those giant home improvement stores baffle and irritate me. They centralize too many things without bothering to organize them, and the employees grin at you (WHERE ARE YOU GOING? DO YOU NEED HELP?) as you wander the concrete floors, searching for a single wood-boring screw, or buckets of black and red paint with which to paint a buxom lady on the side of your B-52.

There is one section of those stores, however, which always makes me stop and shuffle back to look, even though I know I will never need what it's got.

I'm talking about the "door" department. I'll have my hands in my pockets and I'll be careening through the store like a confused grackle that fell in through the chimney. And then I'll end up in the "door" department, and I'll find myself smirking and whistling instead of scowling and muttering.

I love the "door" department. I love the idea that you can go somewhere and buy doors like you can buy hamburgers or stereos. I love looking at all those doors hanging up like suits on a rack, and I love checking out the bevels, grains, and special knobs, and thinking about what doors mean and which door I would buy if I ever needed to buy a door. Doors are gates of thinnest mullion, muntin, and batten. They are human stoppers -- bottle caps to seal off human terrariums! Doors can be locked; doors can be layers that tell you who is in charge and who is a powerless dupe!

Looking at the rows and rows of hanging doors, I think to myself: "if I were a transcendent creature who was able to perceive objects in multiple dimensions as both symbols and actualities -- maybe a two-foot high floating gnome with translucent skin, no lips, and one giant frog eyeball -- I would not be able to see a difference between these hanging doors and books in libraries."

Because books, you see, are doors too.

Unless you are one of the current manufacturers of electronic books, this concept should not come as a shock to you. Whether consciously or not, all readers see books as doors -- as portals to realms of pure abstraction or pure narrative. Your basic "person of letters" always exists in at least two places at the same time, behind at least one book-door. They have a part that breathes and interacts with the practical world of manifest essentials and composites, and then they have a part that travels, a part that busts through one book-door after another like a rookie cop -- diving inside with the vicious cunning of a rat to poke around with dirty sex-fingers and get to the nut of imaginary cheese.

In a book, one door gets you in and another gets you out. This twin set of matched limits is a living force with thoughts for a circulatory system. Books are vertebrates: we call the bit of crackling tissue that holds them together a "spine." Books are primates and mammals: they use abstractions and symbols to convey information, and they give birth to live young after hatching plots inside writers. But they are also parasites: they require a host to breed, they feed on hearts and minds, and they excrete critical theories and paranoia into the bloodstream of their victims. You make the deal when you choose to read. You may enjoy the adventure bordered by picture-cover and flap-copy, but you pay the price of alienation, crepitation, and social ejection.

To effect the process, you must cleave yourself in two. One part of you stays behind to water plants and work a job, while the other part willingly enters the haunted world of a book-writer. You enter each door hesitantly at first, and then faster and faster, tearing through thicker and thicker gobs of prose as you learn about language and boundaries.

Why do readers do this? Why do they split themselves up into parts -- parts that rest and parts that wander -- like Lord Voldemort splitting himself into unkillable multitudes by means of his horcruxes? Like Lord Voldemort, are we readers trying to cheat death by ensuring that the Reaper will have to toil and backtrack to collect all the pieces of our fragmented nous?

I often wonder what book I will be reading when I die. I hope it will be something good. Maybe I will hold a Dickens back so that I can jump into it when I finally stop being able to dodge Manhattan taxis, or have it ready when the priest shows up to do his (exxxxxtreme!) unction. I can hand him "Edwin Drood" and say "be reasonable and read to me from something good for a change."

When a reader dies, the book they started-but-didn't-finish surely has magical and occult properties. It holds a piece of a reader's fractured soul: the narrative part, the bit of luggage with stickers from London, India, Fantasia, Mars, and Hell. Maybe you should grab the last book of a dead loved one from their nightstand at the hospital and toss it into the coffin with them, or maybe you want to burn it to release them into the ether. Perhaps someday the last, unread books of famous writers will become rare collectibles to the simoniacs at Sotheby's.


More than anything else, it is the fact that electronic books do not function like doors that turns readers off. It is a basic revulsion at the destruction of this important metaphor that makes a reader feel cornered, and say things like: "there's just something about a book in your hands," or "I hate reading on a screen."

When you look at the current incarnation of an electronic book -- a thing like a calculator or TV -- do you feel as if someone called the exterminator to seal up your baseboard home with epoxy and then to leave poisoned peanut butter where you are most likely to go out wandering?

That's because the electronic bookbinders are not making doors for us. Instead, they are making windows, and we all have to wonder why. We readers are not timid fools with weak constitutions who only "like to watch." That's the REST of society. We readers like to crash into alien universes and set up camp and start bossing people around and building armies. We do not like to peer at things from afar and eat popcorn and turn our minds off and shush the person next to us.

That's for other people, and there are plenty of them. Readers don't want windows, or peepholes, or periscopes. We want doors. We want handles to hold, and lids to open that have a picture and a title on the front that tells people where we are. We want to be able to see where are friends are staying these days, and we want to be able to say "I've been there; watch out for the catamites belowdecks who will tie your bootlaces together" or "I've always wanted to visit that century in Falkirk; I have heard good things about the breezes."

We want to hold invisible universes in our hands, and be able to snap them shut like cash registers and stick them in our pockets, knowing full well that they will be there when we return. We want a door for each hand and a hinge in between. We want them stacked up for sale so that everyone gets a piece -- like hamburgers or stereos. We want universes you can buy, steal, or borrow -- universes tucked behind a set of strong doors, doors that have qualities you can judge, doors that have qualities that make you mad, doors that have QUALITIES.

Posted by miracle on Sun, 06 Jul 2008 22:08:13 -0400 -- permanent link

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