quick thoughts on books and weekend rituals

jotted while browsing the outdoor shelves at the dupont circle’s second story books.


Perhaps it is melancholy brought on by the great exodus of writers we experienced last week. Or perhaps it’s simply that on Saturday I made a purchase I’m particularly fond of (a 1967 copy of the Carl Rogers & Barry Stevens dialogue Person to person: the problem of being human, complete with a beautiful set of front and back cover artwork). Perhaps I am just out of other things to talk about. Regardless of the reason(s), I feel compelled to write something like a short notice for others on a ritual I’ve added to my weekend schedule, in the hopes that the practice and its many enjoyments entertain a wider audience: buying books that I’ve never heard of before.

person to person: the problem of being human, cover, 1967. (photo credit to DownHomeSupplies)

The day after our most recent Christmas, Washington Post writer Michael Rosenwald published: In the age of Amazon, used bookstores are making an unlikely comeback. A crux of the piece was the idea that: “[u]sed bookstores, with their quintessential quirkiness, eclectic inventory and cheap prices, find themselves in the catbird seat as the pendulum eases back toward print. In many cities, that’s a de facto position: They’re the only book outlets left.” As a DC local, this often feels like the case. My general sentiment, though, is that this state of affairs is a net positive for those of us still in love with somatic literature.

Umberto Eco (photo credit Wikimedia Commons)

Umberto Eco, who passed away last Friday (and who, depending on your level of involvement with his work, you might recognize as the inventor of interpretive semiotics or something akin to Dan Brown’s own personal Velvet Underground), often wrote about “open” texts. Now, when he wrote about texts being “open,” he meant that texts that are internally dynamic and psychologically engaging possess area. They exist as fields that actively engage with life — and through that action communicate something across these spaces.

It’s a rousing thought, but I’m going to purposefully mis-interpret the idea here a bit to engage with a related one that I have: I think there are perhaps two schools of thought on how one can enjoy a book. There are those who engage with books as forgettable containers of meaningful content, and there are those who engage with books as important physical artifacts, some part of which is the content. In the interest of “open-ness,” I might also acknowledge that most people probably lie somewhere on a spectrum between these two bases.

Harper Lee (legendary author of arguably the most influential young adult novel ever written), also passed away on Friday. She once wrote: “The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think” — and I think both of the aforementioned approaches offer ways to engage with a book that might elicit inspiration in its readers.

Harper Lee (photo credit biography.com)

I, myself, sit very close to the ‘artifact’ end of the spectrum. This is not to say that if a book is placed in front of me that I won’t feed on its words and get dizzy inside of its narrative. This is to say that (in my opinion) those are both parts of the entirety of experiencing a book. Those of you who have sworn on a Bible might understand what I mean. There are implications surrounding the book that are not directly a result of the content contained within it. It stands within our legal system as a symbol of trust and accountability between people who have potentially never read the thing. And while this feeling of bizarre sacredness is amplified by the court of law, I feel this holiness, these reverberations of inherited history, whenever I pick up any old kind of book.

Perhaps I can explain better with a water lily. In October of 2014, The Guardian published Sam Knight’s Why would someone steal the world’s rarest water lily?, a mystery of sorts in which an endangered plant was taken from Kew Gardens after being brought back from the brink of extinction by scientists at the prestigious botanical sanctuary just years prior. The nuance of the story therein and the deftness with which Knight employs his language make the story an easy one to recommend.

The plot concerns itself with the theft of the rarest, and most endangered, plant in the Gardens, the Nymphaea thermarum, which is the smallest water lily in the world. Along the way, we are asked to consider what motivations might exist for a thief to pull such a heist. Money, as always, is suggested. A potential thief, apprehended a month before the lily heist, answered quite calmly that he planned to “root [the flowers he’d attempted to steal] and sell them on the internet.”

Nymphaea thermarum (photo credit to Flickr user WolfGang)

We are also asked to consider a deeper kind of obsession, one that exists outside of and perhaps above currency:

“It took me a long time to understand my water lilies,” said Monet, not long before he died in 1926. “Then, all of a sudden, I had the revelation of the enchantment of my pond.” He painted nothing else for almost 30 years: losing first the horizon, and then the water’s edge, ending up in abstraction. His obsession with water lilies pushed him over formal barriers until he came to doubt their validity, and even existence. “To express what I feel before nature,” he wrote to Gustave Geffroy, the art critic, “I totally forget the most elemental rules of painting, if they exist, every time.”

Hutchings, another collector that appears in the article, reframes the same thought:

“Who steals a Mona Lisa? What can you do with it? It is a trophy. It is not worth a light.”

And in a way, this lens of subjective value offers the view through which I like to study books — looking at them much like they are flowers. For while every flower has some content — it’s natural beauty, the support it supplies for the ecosystem it inhabits — each is also an artifact of the process that created it. If we can romantically think of the Platonic form as a recipe rather than a product, then each new interpretation of a process spawns art and in a way also spawns individuals. And this is the power of these lonely little books you’ve never heard of propped up outside of these lonely little bookstores. They have a certain weight to the uniqueness of their interpretations, and much like the stolen water lily that so very nearly went extinct, the way that their rarity intersects with value can’t be measured with monetary value as effectively as it can be measured in the reliability of that object to consistently generate the skin-prickle feeling that accompanies interacting with someone else’s nostalgia.

I have many books now — probably more than I will ever get to pick up and read in a way that is deserving of them. But that’s ok. I can still look at them, pick them up and feel the passion that went into them, the process that led to their existence. My bookshelf has become a garden in this way — one full of flowers that can only die if I forget to pick them up and speak to them every so often.

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