A Conspiracy of Pages

[Etching: “The Hall of Planets,” by Erik Desmazières, #5 in a series of eleven illustrating  an edition of “The Library of Babel,” by Jorges Luis Borges; click to enlarge]

From whiskey river:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.

(C. S. Lewis, The Weight Of Glory [source])


I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy?… Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

(Franz Kafka [source])

Not from whiskey river (regarding a (fictional?) library of infinite size, in which every room is hexagonal in shape):

When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors, proffered dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts, met their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went mad… The Vindications exist (I have seen two which refer to persons of the future, to persons who are perhaps not imaginary) but the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.

(Jorge Luis Borges, from “The Library of Babel”)


Against the Evidence

As I reach to close each book
lying open on my desk, it leaps up
to snap at my fingers. My legs
won’t hold me, I must sit down.
My fingers pain me
where the thick leaves snapped together
at my touch.
All my life
I’ve held books in my hands
like children, carefully turning
their pages and straightening out
their creases. I use books
almost apologetically. I believe
I often think their thoughts for them.
Reading, I never know where theirs leave off
and mine begin. I am so much alone
in the world, I can observe the stars
or study the breeze, I can count the steps
on a stair on the way up or down,
and I can look at another human being
and get a smile, knowing
it is for the sake of politeness.
Nothing must be said of estrangement
among the human race and yet
nothing is said at all
because of that.
But no book will help either.
I stroke my desk,
its wood so smooth, so patient and still.
I set a typewriter on its surface
and begin to type
to tell myself my troubles.
Against the evidence, I live by choice.

(David Ignatow [source])


The Secret Life of Books

They have their stratagems too, though they can’t move.
They know their parts.
Like invalids long reconciled
To stillness, they do their work through others.
They have turned the world
To their own account by the twisting of hearts.

What do they have to say and how do they say it?
In the library
At night, or the sun room with its one
Curled thriller by the window, something
Is going on,
You may suspect, that you don’t know of. Yet they

Need you. The time comes when you pick one up,
You who scoff
At determinism, the selfish gene.
Why this one? Look, already the blurb
Is drawing in
Some further text. The second paragraph

Calls for an atlas or a gazetteer;
That poem, spare
As a dead leaf’s skeleton, coaxes
Your lexicon. Through you they speak
As through the sexes
A script is passed that lovers never hear.

They have you. In the end they have written you,
By the intrusion
Of their account of the world, so when
You come to think, to tell, to do,
You’re caught between
Quotation marks, your heart’s beat an allusion.

(Stephen Edgar [source])

One more item: pulp fiction covers return to frightening, exciting life in the work of Thomas Allen, in whom the words artist and photographer converge in a deliciously non-mutually exclusive way:

That’s Nina Simone on the soundtrack, singing “I Put a Spell on You”:

I Put a Spell on You
(by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; performance by Nina Simone)

I put a spell on you
‘Cause you’re mine

You better stop the things you do
I ain’t lyin’
No I ain’t lyin’

You know I can’t stand it
You’re runnin’ around
You know better daddy
I can’t stand it ’cause you put me down

I put a spell on you
Because you’re mine
You’re mine

[instrumental break]

I love ya
I love you
I love you
I love you anyhow
And I don’t care
if you don’t want me
I’m yours right now

You hear me
I put a spell on you
Because you’re mine

There are moments in those lyrics, I swear, when it almost sounds like a book — fiction to be sure, pulp or not — is singing to its reader. I can’t stand it ’cause you put me down…

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  1. According to my new custom, I comment as I go down the page, which might at least be amusing.

    Disagreeing wildly with Kafka. I read for the thrill of the new idea, the eureka re-packaging of older ones, and for the sensual pleasure of words that decode themselves into images and music inside my skull.

    Kafka was in a foul mood that day. As usual.

    And I intend to search for Vindication until both my eyes and ears fall off, so pfui on Borges, too.

    Say, even the Ignatow and Edgars sound more than a tad dark and hopeless. Have we hit a dry patch in the novel? Are we frustrated? If it always went along smoothly, we’d all be writers : )

    New screenplay for Ben Stiller: Night At The Library. Mary Had A Little Lamb bringing Lolita up on charges, defended by Raymond Burr and prosecuted by Mary Shelley.

    And, with the Thomas Allen, I give up entirely on getting through a whole Friday without copying something to appropriate for my own blog space. Gotta have it!

  2. Nance: Ah, but you bleeped right over your mystical pal CS Lewis!

    I don’t think those guys in general were in a bad mood. I took their words as, umm, exhortational rather than comforting. Sort of slap-me-out-of-complacency.

    Love the screenplay idea. You might want to consider looking into the “Thursday Next” series of novels by Jasper Fforde. Or, hmm, maybe his “Nursery Crime” series even more…

  3. i love, love love the kafka quote because I COMPLETELY AGREE.

  4. I wrote a short story years ago that dealt with a book’s point of view…how relentless it was vying for attention from the housework, the children, the cooking, etc. I’ll have to see if I can dig it up somewhere and look at it again. Thanks for the Friday post, John, and have fun wherever you are!

  5. @John – Well, it’s just that my seas aren’t frozen.

  6. Aha! I’ve never, ever read the full Kafka quote (with the famous “frozen sea” reference). So neat to see that context for once. Wonderful post.

  7. I don’t know, I kind of like being stabbed by a book. I am sure of one thing here: Borges would love this compilation. He’s up there in the heavens smoking a stogey (a finely wrapped Cohiba) and nodding appreciatively.
    Wait, I”m sure of two things: “I use books
    almost apologetically. I believe
    I often think their thoughts for them.
    Reading, I never know where theirs leave off
    and mine begin.”
    That video is killer. ;)

  8. First, this makes me wonder if I’ve ever written anything that stabbed someone.

    Last, love the video and the song.

    There’s lots in the middle but I don’t have the energy. I do look forward to Friday posts though.

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