Saturday, March 31, 2012

`Always Something New to Startle and Delight Us'

In the King James Bible, Ecclesiastes 12:12 warns:

“And further, by these, my sonne, be admonished: of making many bookes there is no end, and much studie is a wearinesse of the flesh.”

The Preacher’s words came to mind as I watched a marvelous video, “Birth of a Book,” produced by the Daily Telegraph. Books and movies about making things, whether sandwiches or aircraft carriers, are always encouraging. They imply something admirable about our species when such evidence is sorely precious. In an age of automation, when a dwindling number of us make things you can hold in your hands and use, watching bookmakers at work, folding pages by hand and applying glue with a brush, boosts one’s sense of cultural morale.

The verse above is most often interpreted as a variation on the caution against vanity. Most would agree that too many books are written and published, volumes that evaporate before readers can read them. In fact, too many unnecessary and poorly written books, volumes with no claim on our serious attention, have always been cranked out like clothes pins. From some years, only one or two worthwhile volumes survive. Consider 1851.

The Preacher’s caution, however, may be given a different interpretation. In his essay “El Dorado” (Virginibus Puerisque, 1881), Robert Louis Stevenson deems Qoheleth a cheerleader for human possibility: 

“`Of making books there is no end,’ complained the Preacher; and did not perceive how highly he was praising letters as an occupation. There is no end, indeed, to making books or experiments, or to travel, or to gathering wealth. Problem gives rise to problem. We may study for ever, and we are never as learned as we would. We have never made a statue worthy of our dreams. And when we have discovered a continent, or crossed a chain of mountains, it is only to find another ocean or another plain upon the further side. In the infinite universe there is room for our swiftest diligence and to spare. It is not like the works of Carlyle, which can be read to an end. Even in a corner of it, in a private park, or in the neighbourhood of a single hamlet, the weather and the seasons keep so deftly changing that although we walk there for a lifetime there will be always something new to startle and delight us.”

Watch “Birth of a Book” a second time and judge whether the manufacture of yet another book is “something new to startle and delight us.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

First off, what King James translates in Ecclesiastes 12 as “vanity” literally means “vapor” or “breath” in Hebrew. It’s a subtle but important distinction, shifting the emphasis from “human ambition” to impermanence, from the illusion of certainty to the certainty of illusion, so to speak. Second, we have to remember that books in those days were not printed volumes, but painstakingly hand-written texts (the “weariness of flesh” was partly a real physical thing). Thus the phrase immediately before the admonition against book-making: “their [the wise] collected sayings [are] like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.” To try to make wisdom more permanent by capturing it in book form is foolish because one person’s viewpoint can’t adapt to the constant flux of life. The context of this is not, however, the modern notion of an individual author with thoughts to be shared with posterity. Bookmaking was even in those days the work of scribes, who not only transcribed but edited, amended and interpreted passages in an ongoing dialogue. (The Bible itself represents the collective words and thoughts of thousands of independent scribes from the evolving scriptoria tradition). This collaboration was for the inner circle, not be shared, hence the warning about “hidden things brought to life” in God’s judgment.

In this context, the impermanence of bookmaking is self-evident (books will fall to dust as the Buddhist mandalas do), and serves as an argument for a larger sense of impermanence. And Ecclesiastes itself is a book, no doubt subject to innumerable amendments over the years. This appeals to our post-modern sense of irony, as well as more traditional notions of vanity. But it doesn’t contradict anything Stevenson says. Just because things (even books) keep expanding and changing (and coming to nothing) doesn’t mean there is no value in pursuing them. Wisdom consists in recognizing that nuance.