A Cloud of Books

This is a return to Jorge Luis Borges, the Borges of The Book of Imaginary Beings. I am minded to write about ‘books’ today, but first I want to ask myself why it is that I am addicted to books as Tade Thompson puts it of himself. Why collect books endlessly, reading, storing, hoarding, saving, laying down like wine that needs first to age and then that is ready to be savoured and comprehended? I can remember a weekend at Hay-on Wye, buying books by weight rather than by title and then finally searching through the cargo for title and author, for provenance and interest. Then I knew, finally, that like a true addict, the quality of wine, the aromatic splendour of grapes was no longer the inducement, more simply the alcohol was the true aim, just being a book was enough. For me, it was textural, also textual, almost sexual in intensity, the drive not only to touch the cover, to examine the artwork, to feel the page before plunging in to grasp what the words said. And I was not ready then or now to be cured of this disease, a most appealing affliction.

The Book of Imaginary Beings does what all books do, but fiction excels at, it introduces the surprising and the yet to be encountered. It explores the nature of symbols by the use of symbols. My favourite imaginary being is the Zaratan, which according to Borges, is recorded in Animals by al-Jahiz, the ninth-century Moslem Zoologist whose words are translated by Miguel Asin Palacios

As for the zaratan, I never met anyone who actually saw it with his own eyes.

There are sailors who assert that they have drawn alongside certain sea islands, seeing wooded valleys and crevices in the rock, and landed to light a big fire; and when the heat of the flames reached the zaratan’s spine, the beast began to slip under the waters with them on top of him, and with all the plants growing on him, until only those able to swim away were saved. This outdoes even the boldest, most imaginative piece of fiction.

Here we have all the magnificence of literature- hypertextual immanence, if I might put it that way. An imaginary being, an ancient text by al-Jahiz and translated by Miguel Asin Palacios and related to us by Borges and sent onwards on its journey by me. An accumulation of preposterous imaginings over space and time, an accretion some might say but no less alive for that and infused with vitality in the retelling. It reminds me of Heredotus and his accounts of Africa outside of Egypt:

From these people [Garamantes] is the shortest route – thirty days’ journey – to the Lotophagi; and it is amongst them that the cattle are found which walk backwards as they graze. The reason for this curious habit is provided by the formation of their horns, which bend forwards and downwards; this prevents them from moving forwards in the ordinary way, for, if they tried to do so, their horns would stick in the ground. In other respects they are just like ordinary cattle – except for the thickness and toughness of their hide. The Garamantes hunt the Ethiopian troglodytes, in four-horse chariots, for these troglodytes are exceedingly  swift of foot – more so than any people of whom we have any information. They eat snakes and lizards and other reptiles and speak a language like no other, but squeak like bats.

Ten days’ journey from the Garamantes is yet another hill and spring – this time the home of the Atarantes, the only people in the world, so far as our knowledge goes, to do without names. Atarantes is the collective name – but individually they have none. They curse the sun as it rises and call it by all sorts of opprobrious names, because it wastes and burns both themselves and their land. Once more at a distance of ten days’ journey …The natives (who are known as the Atlantes, after the mountains) call it the Pillar of the Sky. They are said to eat no living creature, and never to dream.

These imaginings, these obviously false but intriguing accounts make for compulsive even if incredulous reading, asserting the role of books in populating our inner lives with the grotesque and the sublime, the unexpected and the mundane. And in doing so, informing and enriching at the same time.

 I have Jo Hurlow to thank for introducing me to Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a fictional ode to books. The book opens

For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I’ve come to look like my encyclopaedias – a good three tons of them compacted over the years. I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can’t tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years.

I too, totally identify with the compulsive desire to collect books

But just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the waters of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally come forth, and if for a moment I turn away dazzled, I always turn back in time to rescue it, and after wiping it off on my apron, opening it wide, and breathing its print, I glue my eyes to the text and read out the first sentence like a Homeric prophecy; then I place it carefully among my other splendid finds…

Then, there is the intoxicating nature of reading, the delirious even ecstatic communion. Hrabal puts it like this

I start reading I’m somewhere completely different, I’m in the text, it’s amazing, I have to admit I’ve been dreaming in a land of great beauty, I’ve been in the very heart of truth…I wonder at having wandered so far, and then, alienated from myself, a stranger to myself, I go home, walking the streets silently and in deep meditation, passing trams and cars and pedestrians in a cloud of books…

It is not accidental that Hrabal’s protagonist works with a hydraulic press to destroy books, that is to treat books as wastepaper! To fully grasp the value of books, it is in the destruction that the true value becomes obvious. The destruction of books, by which I mean the deliberate, wilful destruction of books, is too a pointer to a fear of books and its potential power to subvert. This theme is already present in Don Quixote de la Mancha- the priest, barber, housekeeper and his niece were discussing the reason for his madness and alighted on books:

My uncle would often be reading those evil books of misadventure for two whole days and nights on end, and then he’d throw his book down, grab his sword and slash the walls of his room and once he was exhausted he’d say that he’d killed four giants as big as four towers…

The priest asked the niece for the keys of the room where the books, the authors of the mischief, were kept…They went in…and found more than a hundred large volumes, finely bound, and some small ones; and as soon as the housekeeper saw them, she ran out of the room and back again clutching a bowl of holy water…

The decision was made to burn the books

There’s no reason to let any of them off, they’re all to blame. Better throw the whole lot of them out of the window into the courtyard and make a pile of them, and set fire to them, or take them to the backyard and make the bonfire there, where the smoke won’t be such a nuisance.

This brings me to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a study of the power of books, the fear of books by authoritarian states and the wilful destruction of books by burning. In Bradbury’s parable, the pleasure is experienced, not from reading but from burning books. For Montag, the fireman, 

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. 

So here in this story, we have firemen whose task it is to burn houses down, to destroy houses where books have been found, a veritable reversal of the purpose of fire services, from saving and rescuing to destroying and killing. In Don Quixote de la Mancha, there is a playfulness about the burning of Quixote’s library. Individual books are examined and their value is determined before a decision about whether they are for saving or for burning is made. Cervantes allows himself a private joke, he says of his own book Galatea by Miguel de Cervantes

That fellow Cervantes has been a good friend of mine for years, and I know he’s more conversant with adversity than with verse. His book is ingenious enough; it sets out to achieve somethings but doesn’t bring anything to a conclusion; we will have to wait for the promised second part; maybe with correction it’ll gain the full pardon denied it for the time being; so while we wait and see, you keep it captive in your house, my friend.

Cervantes’ book is granted bail at least for a while. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, this respite is not usually granted. This of course raises that impossible question, what is so threatening about written works? Why are writers so brutally persecuted? Of course, there is no ready answer. Bradbury attempts an answer, that is both satisfying and disarming

So now do you know why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.

What more is there to say?

Photos by Jan Oyebode

8 thoughts on “A Cloud of Books

  1. I have listed every book I’ve read annually for the last 23 years. On Jan the first each year I count and divide into fiction and non fiction

    Then I write an article of best… and worst

    But why? Like many habits the reasons for reading and listing are undefinable and enjoyable

    This year with a house move imminent, we’ve put books daily out on our pavement wall. They all get scooped up: kids books, academic books on planning, Norman Lewis, Greene, Roth, Du Maurier, medieval history, rock biographies. The slowest to go are coffee table recipe books.

  2. From the libraries of Alexandria and before to the scribes of Egypt and, before it, Mesopotamia, humanity has had a fascination with the recorded word. Fiction allows us to view the world through a mind not our own. What a beautiful exposition of what it means to live the reader’s life.

  3. What more can be said? The writer and the reader have the same mind; for the former puts in writing what the later is thinking. Both are indeed, intertwined!

  4. Hi Femi
    As ever clear and deep account of how books affect and develop us as humans
    Reminiscent about Herodotous history and my school days and our philosophy group!
    My best regards

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