The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus was an early observer of the ever occurring change in our universe. About the same time in the 5th Century BC, Parmenides pondered the notion of permanence, what we could presume in nature to be essential. Between the two of them, we have a thesis and antithesis that have yet to reveal a synthesis beyond argument some 2500 years later. We see change all around us in almost unfathomable complexity, while we wonder what we can hold onto as firm. For me, it’s a good problem to have, as contemplation of the unsettled forces us to chew harder and argue better.
Then there are books.
In a recent Wall Street Journal piece with the header “Books That Are Never Done Being Written,” Nicholas Carr contemplates the far-ranging impact of digital distribution on long-established but fluid notions of traditional publishing:
An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.
The realization that books are no more permanent than this year’s understanding of medical treatment is hardly shocking. The very paradigm of printing on paper and binding a work has throughout its history adopted the notion of editions and revisions. Where would the school textbook industry be without an excuse to update a classroom volume rather than allow you to feel comfortable buying a dog-eared half price two-year old version? If we only needed one unabridged edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, think of how many academic preface summaries we would have been denied annotating discovered corrections in the core text.
Yet in the worlds of literature and even political theory, we do seem to maintain an expectation that the version we read of Charles Dickens or John Stuart Mill is largely the same as the draft the author called final. “A Tale of Two Cities” even when presented in its initial serialization was eventually finished, as was the essay “On Liberty,” and when we buy a copy of one of these today either in paperback or download, we do believe in the authenticity of replication representing if not a fully steady state, a pretty firm slice of life. That is helpful not only in getting us all on the same page for discussion and critique, it offers us grounding in history and social evolution, the ceaseless churn emerging from deliberately placed bricks in the wall.
I have a hard time thinking today is much different, and no matter the short attention span theater that victimizes so much of our patience, my sense is our books have never been more important — no matter the brevity of their life-cycle, no matter their imposed truncation or expansion, no matter their delivery format or storage means on wood shelf or cloud server. Our books will change as they must, but their timeliness and meditation as collective might be the primary permanence we retain, even if it is more spiritual and metaphorical than natural or physical. The means of delivering the book does not define the book, it is largely irrelevant, itself a timely convenience worthy of disruption. The material of delivery is subordinated to the material of substance, it is the content that matters, not the media. The Platonic form is the ideal, and that cannot be taken from us by technology.
However we acknowledge its consumption mechanism, the book as ideal is a bridge among scattered coordinates. We learn to read an organized set of drawn thoughts to see what is meant by change, and those who have the gift and discipline to construct a book add to the global library of permanence by carrying the torch that challenges all that came before. Historic observation is clear and consistent: the buildings decay, the land can be conquered and utilized anew after wars and governments are gone, but the ideas underlying arts remain for examination. The composed book is the codification of the idea however it is presented, that does not change.
My amazing wife, who is also an amazing teacher, enters her classroom on the first day with a simple statement:
“Our books are our treasures.”
Her specialty is English as a Second Language, and whether she is teaching adults or children, this mantra is always the same. Books are precious. If you look around our house, you might see why this is our chorus. Books are everywhere. That is what we want to be surrounded by. We also have a Kindle and an iPad. They are filled with books as well.
Another recent story in the Wall Street Journal discussed how the price of e-books was sometimes dropping below the price of “real” books which I guess means paper books, but to me, one is no less real than the other. The broader question remaining is whether the great majority of people should still find the time for long-form written expression in a world cluttered with half-baked tidbit social media posts like this one. The answer has to be yes, because if we are going to allow character count to trump in-depth inquiry, we condemn our more severe concerns to being adequately addressed by less than substantial narrative. Our pace of change is only becoming more frantic, and the hope for some form of understandable permanence all the more desirable in addressing unending anxieties. Committed writing and reading gets us a good deal of the way there, because the acts of reading and writing might be one of the few forms of permanence we can share.
I say this as someone who just spent the better part of a year writing my first book, which is now in first draft and undergoing edit. I haven’t talked much about the book, and won’t until we get closer to publication, but let me just say that whether anyone reads it or it sells a single copy, it will remain one of my proudest achievements. Right now it is a long book. It will get shorter to accommodate marketing concerns, but hopefully it will still be a substantial book. I couldn’t have said all I needed to say in a blog post or I would have. Believe me, I would have!
In our world of constant and increasing hyper flux, books can be thought of as a noble but flawed exercise in establishing some sense of the enduring. Now that digital publishing allows current authors easy access to further disturbing permanence, any foothold in establishing the concrete may remain even more illusive, but the stepping-stones of thought that bridge us from there to here can certainly maintain significance if we view thought as continuum, a timeline. In that regard, as a roadmap or even a set of breadcrumbs, books for me have never been more relevant, nor the mission of authors any less permanent. Some books are good and some are bad, some certainly more ephemeral than others, but the connectivity of books is ongoing. Apps or facings, that is as it should be, as long as I can read.