If all books were to disappear from the world, think of the impact not on readers, those of us who live by the book, but on the great mass of humanity who are non- or indifferent readers. Nothing. No impact at all, thank you. Perhaps even relief. One less nagging sense of inferiority to carry around. Just as purportedly educated people approve of knocking down Jefferson and Lincoln statues, so will they acquiesce to putting the torch to Spinoza and Henry James. Of course, there’s another, less conspicuous way to destroy books: don’t read them. We’ve reached a place in history where illiteracy and aliteracy carry a certain cachet, like driving a Prius.
In “The Wall and the Books” (trans. Eliot Weinberger, p. 344, Selected Non-Fictions, 1999), Borges reminds us that the Chinese emperor who ordered construction of the Great Wall, Shih Huang Ti, also ordered the burning of all books written before his time. Borges refers to the latter decree as “the rigorous abolition of history.” Among the writers slated for the emperor’s auto-da-fé were Chuang Tzu, Confucius and Lao Tzu – figures well-known even to readers in the West. With the loss of knowledge goes something less tangible but comparably essential to those with the capacity to cherish the beautiful. Borges concludes his essay:
“Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces worn by time, certain twilights and certain places, all want to tell us something, or have told us something we shouldn't have lost, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.”