Updated: Jul 18, 2021
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
I have often wondered whether the claim about the eternal nature of the human spirit had any legs to stand on. Scientists have stopped trying to search for heaven and anything akin to a God, for in the eyes of those empiricists, what cannot be measured does not exist. As a citizen of the 21st century, I have to nod my head in agreement. However, there is a golden string that one's eyes could graze upon in the pages of Dante and if you pick it up with your fingers and trace it's origins, it takes you on a journey through Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Woolf and all the way to the postmodernist critiques of today, crossing through the border of time and space, transcending the immutable features of mankind and elegantly revealing a theory of the nature of the subjective human experience. How could one look at books and not see the eternal human spirit? The existence of books is so fundamental to the human race that we have decided that history began when human beings started writing. What is writing? It's putting your hand against a cave wall and painting the sides to make a silhouette of your palm. It's a mark on the cold hard rock, which screams, "I was here."
And so, the story of mankind and the story of books are intertwined together by our own admission. We wrote down what we could feel in our hearts but couldn't quite string together in our own minds. Books made our intangible feelings real. Eventually, it became much more than that. We wrote, not just to validate our feelings, but to write about reality. Johannes Kepler wrote about the delusion of the people in his century who believed the sun goes around the earth by writing the first science fiction. How terrorising his words became that his own mother was tested for witchcraft. There must be something powerful, even destructively so, in our books to elicit such a response. We pay a price for the truthful books we write. But, all the witch hunts are worth the exposition of the truth. And so, with shaking hands and crushing uncertainty, a writer stares at en empty page and decides to fill it with words. We have to get to the truth, More accurately, we have to write our way to it. As a writer, it is akin to inching in a dark tunnel trying to touch a blinding light and hoping it doesn't char you with it's heat.
And what about you and me? The readers? In The Great Human Conversation where Freud discusses the sub-personalities in our own mind and Jung talks of the archetypes found in popular fiction, where Einstein radically reconfigures the very structure of reality with his theories and Emily Dickinson gives a brand new vocabulary to explain the paranoia of a modern woman, where do you and I stand in this mass of geniuses? We have, nothing, but these books to join the dinner party. Fitzgerald tells his wild and miserable stories, snatching the dignity of his past lovers each time he opens his mouth. James Baldwin writes on his experience as a queer black man and I am wiser because now I know. I am clinking champagne glasses with old, dead men and women and throwing myself in conversations with these shining, luminescent demigods who have filled my mind with stories, theories and dreams. I have friends, both serious and fun. Charles Bukowski tells me the price for genius is cruelty. And Plath and Woolf, they console me when I am in the trenches all alone. Women, my ancestors, they are all alive in these texts. Their words are still here when they are gone. How can I be lonely when I am surrounded by the wisest, most interesting people who have ever lived? How can anyone dispute that the human soul isn't eternal?
And what of God? Tell me the purpose of religion and I will elaborate how books fulfill that place for a modern man in a non-dogmatic fashion. If religions tells a man his place in the world and the role he has to play in it, books could easily fulfill the same conditions. When we witness a hero in our fictions or get awestruck by an elegant scientific theory, something grips put minds with an intensity that the mundane occurences of daily life never do. We don't choose what interests us. Instead, it is the interesting thing that chooses us and holds us in our position. Our eyes become transfixed on the page and we are filled with awe, curiosity and if you are honest enough to admit it, envy. Think of heroes riding into the battlefield. Romeo confessing his love and affection for Juliet as she stands on the terrace. Jesus being crucified on the stake and his last words being "Forgive them, they do not know." The one who returns to his kingdom after an exile. Brothers, the archetypes of evil and good, fighting for land. Books, with these eternal stories, accurately grasp the fundamental conflicts that exist within our own mind. The fight between evil and good, man and nature, man and man, love and duty, we hear these stories and pick our heroes. We worship these heroes. Think of the reaction to the Marvel comics and how the heroes are put on pedestals and billboards and tell me it isn't a modern religion.
The magic of books doesn't end there. After all, we seek to imitate who we worship. And if all the benefits of books weren't enough to justify it's position in the world (the continuity of the human history, the tangible memory of the human race, a storehouse of wisdom), the most important function of books is to make gods out of mere mortals like us. Books are the penultimate source of all imagination. Who does your conscience berate you for not becoming? Who defined the ideal that puts all of us to shame? The books we read and the art we witnessed did. We get inspired to become heroes when we read about them. Books, therefore, are our call to adventure, the gentle whisper in the winds: "Hey, Kid." these books seem to say, "You can be better than you think you can be. Yes, you."
Pick a book today. Here's some popular book lists, listed on Brainpickings, by the incomparable Maria Popova: