This paradise of books

Full immersion baptism. Occasionally, that’s how I think of reading. You get so lost in a book that you sink into its depths, it washes over you, and you emerge transformed. Less dramatically, it’s telling that we say things like “I got lost in the story.” For as anyone with the slightest inkling for adventure knows, getting lost can be a lot of fun. What lies beyond? What’s the harm in wandering a bit, we ask? Exploring the unknown invokes both curiosity and fear, a basic human desire and a primordial emotion. Together they form a rather potent mixture which can draw us ever onward.

There are two senses of “getting lost” that I have in mind. First, when I stare up at my library, I can peruse any number of topics or genres through books. I can pick up The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, which I noticed the other day and pulled off the shelf, or I can grab a volume of John Berger’s writings on photography, which I’ve skimmed periodically over the past several years. In a library, fired by a desire to know and imagine, or even by simple inquisitiveness, I can investigate what life was like as a medieval theologian, or I can immerse myself in the semi-autobiographical world of Patrick Modiano. Perhaps the simile is strained, but I’ll risk it: part of the joy of being in a library is that it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure story writ large. On quite a number of occasions I have looked up at a wall of shelves, whether my own or somewhere else, and something has jumped out at me. Soon I’m carried off to some other time and place in “this paradise of books,” to use the words of Where Angels Fear to Tread.

While the first type of “getting lost” pertains to topics and genres, the second relates to particularities. As I wrote above, each of us knows the joy of becoming immersed in a specific story. Surely this is one of reading’s greatest pleasures, its escapism. To follow Don Quixote around, for instance, as he and his side-kick become ensnared in countless misadventures is, among other things, deeply entertaining. Reading such a story may help me pass the time or, more contemplatively, it may offer me the chance to reflect on the relationship between stories and life. In the case of Don Quixote, this particular instance of fictional escapism alerts even the most inattentive of readers to a warning about one of the pitfalls of reading—namely, that books and stories can mislead you into thinking that life imitates art. As the commonplace “tilting at windmills” indicates, Don Quixote is so immersed in chivalrous romances that his sense of reality is deeply impaired. You could say that the character of Don Quixote is a metaphor for how “getting lost” in a book or story can be detrimental to your clarity of vision. Ever since the modern novel first made its appearance, many good stories, including Don Quixote, but also Candide and Tristam Shandy, just to name a couple of other famous examples I’m fond of, have drawn comic attention to what happens when the line between fiction and reality becomes indistinguishable.

Nevertheless, what I want to suggest is that one of the central characteristics of stories is in fact their power to clarify our moral vision. The phrase “this paradise of books” leaped off the page for me because it captures not only the endless fun good stories involve, the almost eternal enjoyment derived from the mere playfulness of play, but also the fact that a library is a school for life. Yet in order to get the most out of a library you need to know how to use it. Likewise, the better you read, the more you’ll get out of stories and all forms of literature. Don Quixote reminds us that stories and books might not help us see clearly in and of themselves. Their consolation may actually impinge on our ability to perceive reality correctly. Indeed, the risk is much greater than that. Countless stories warn their reader about the dangers of knowledge gained from books. In Gogol’s satirical masterpiece Dead Souls, for example, one of the characters, a landowner who tried to reform his estate and make things easier on his peasants, comes to the conclusion that “a simple knowledge of human beings was more necessary than the fine points in books on law and philosophy”.1

Still, there is a difference between an adventure, which is structured towards a goal in some minimal way, and aimless, perpetual wandering. To return again to the example of Don Quixote, that novel suggests that it is not so much stories themselves that are the problem, but an inattentive, unreflective reading of them. In The Consolation of Philosophy Boethius has Lady Philosophy warn him against the stories told by the poetic muses precisely because they lead to aimless wandering.2 In good Platonist fashion, she tells him that stories smother the light of reason in the darkness and obscurity of passion, like someone who stumbles around drunkenly in the shadows of night. Today this presumption doesn’t hold. We are as likely to be suspicious of the “claim of reason”3 as we are of passion, as wary of the pretensions of philosophy as we are confident of the value of literature. To put it punningly, there are good reasons for this. The relevant question here, as I see it, isn’t so much whether or not life imitates art (and vice versa), but how it does so.4 If the Platonic philosophical tradition tends to be too hard on the imagination, subordinating it to reason because of the power of fancy to cause us to err, it should be recalled that Plato’s writings are themselves highly creative works of (reasoned) imagination. Across his works, from The Republic to The Symposium, Socrates is repeatedly shown in conversation as someone who bests the poets and playwrights at their own artistic game. It is surely noteworthy that his most famous teaching is delivered by means of an allegory: to see the truth you must begin a pilgrimage, you must somehow break free of your chains, look away from the shadowy, false images of the imagination, ascend the path towards the cave’s exit, and adjust your eyes to the real world illuminated in the bright light of the sun.

In The Prince Machiavelli suggests that a wise ruler “should read histories and consider in them the actions of excellent men.”5 Such a ruler will pay special attention to their conduct and to the causes of their victories, so as to be able to imitate them or not, according to their success. On this view, history is to be mined for its examples and paired with careful observation based on experience. That is how you tame and make the most of fortune. So long as we don’t equate excellence with purported greatness—that is to say, so long as we have a proper sense of genuine excellence and do not settle for becoming fixated solely on “great (white) men,” the Alexanders and Napoleons of this world—I think the point being made retains an important element of truth. If we revise Machiavelli’s own revisionist thought (Roman virtus becoming Florentine virtù), amplifying it beyond anything he had in mind so that it applies to all forms of literature and not just history, it reminds us that there are two forms of “reading” at work: the reading of texts, such as the histories by Herodotus or Livy, and the “reading” that is involved in any act of human observation.

To bring this back to my theme of “getting lost” in stories, you could say that the urge to wander aimlessly is always present for human beings, even as it is also sometimes a necessary reprieve from the constraints of heading towards a goal. But ultimately there is no alternative to pilgrimage. In existential and moral terms we are all always heading in one direction or another. Our ability to navigate our world, then, is one that we exercise in qualitative degrees. Which is another way of saying that both types of reading that Machiavelli mentions can be developed and enhanced. It is up to each of us to learn how to make the most of “this paradise of books.”

In the history of Christianity the two forms of reading were connected to the “two books:” the Book of Books (the Bible) and the Book of Nature. These were the sources of revealed and natural truth. The metaphor is used by Peter Abelard in his eighth letter to Heloise, for instance.6 Given the fact that oral tradition, by which I mean the communal transmission of information through story and ritual, has played an enormously important role in virtually every culture and society that has ever existed on this earth, this Christian metaphor captures an important truth. Of course, I do not mean to privilege Christianity here. I simply mean to draw attention to the fact that there is an incredibly important relationship between formal stories, whether oral or written, whether fictive or analytical, various degrees of ritualized communal practice, and the everyday experience of the world around us. For a long time, and in very many cultural traditions, this link has been observed and maintained, usually unconsciously. If we reflect on this today, in a more self-aware fashion than in past centuries, that does not render its truth less salient. It offers us a valuable reminder: neither history nor experience—no matter how critically we examine them—exist entirely apart from the ways in which we “read” them. I hasten to add that that does not mean our readings are mere projections onto the world. Instead, tweaking Walter Benjamin in his Illuminations, I would say that human comprehension is encompassed by the “life of history.”7

Let me stop for a moment and unpack what I mean by this. How could reading books and reading experience be encompassed by history? Well, first of all, each of us is born at a particular time in a particular place. To say that I was born in the province of Ontario, in the country of Canada, in the latter half of the twentieth century, locates me. I am situated in a certain political entity (a democratic constitutional monarchy), in a definable social location (lower-middle class), within the network or web of a given culture (Anglophone British settler colonialism). So, I am a white man, my mother tongue is English, I was baptized into Protestant Christianity, and I was educated according to the liberal cultural norms of the 1980s and 90s. Let’s call this set of coordinates my “background.” My personal identity is what it is in light of this background. I have worked out who I am from within this context. Through my own lived experience, I have appropriated my sense of self from a horizon which is itself the product of individual and collective negotiations already accomplished before me.

My negotiations of this heritage and their consequences are realized in my life through the various ways in which I navigate my world: on the level of kinship, I have become who I am through the relationships with my family—my parents, my siblings, my extended kin; on the level of interpersonal interaction, I have become who I am through the relationships with my schoolmates, my friends, my work colleagues, and with my fellow parishioners at church; on the level of society, I have become who I am through my relationship with unfamiliar others, such as my doctor, my grocer, or perhaps my adversary at court; and on the most personal level, I have become who I am in relation to my self as it has existed over time—myself at 40 being indebted to and shaped by who I was at 30, at 20, and so on. Although this way of describing my “situatedness” may seem complicated enough, it is really just an outline. By combining my social, cultural, and political coordinates with the various levels of my historically lived experience, I have tried to convey the extent to which I think each of us has the identity we do in relation to our time and place.8 This is the historical horizon to which I was referring when I invoked Benjamin’s notion of being encompassed by history.

Now let’s move forward again and connect this up with the distinction I drew earlier between an adventure and aimlessness. We have gone on a detour in which I have tried to show how each of us stands in a particular context. I have claimed that all human beings are “situated.” I have then linked this to the fact that, when we read, whether we’re talking about a story or an experience, we read from within and against a historical horizon. It would be appropriate to say that each historical horizon is also a way of reading the world since it has been a way of coming to terms with humanity’s place in it. Each culture that has existed was and is a social embodiment of the ways in which human beings, collectively and individually, carry out a range of tasks, from those connected to survival, including the provision of food and shelter and reproduction, to the activities which make up our highest aspirations, be that glory in combat or communion with God.

What I want to draw attention to now is the fact that within each culture a process of revision and refinement is continually taking place. This negotiation happens on both a communal and individual level. So, when I read a story I am simultaneously doing so by realizing and revising an overlapping network of communal stories, stories of which I am a part because I am a part of multiple communities, just as I am revising my personal story. But such revisions are either good or bad, helping me navigate the world better or not. To put it this way is to put it more prescriptively and bluntly than I am inclined to feel about it, since I want to acknowledge that getting lost can and does have its place, just as moments of relaxed structure, of play, are crucially important.9 But at the end of the day I would say that lasting states of aimlessness are harmful, even detrimental, to human fullness. It is like having an impaired sense of vision, without knowing where to go, or even how to read the world around you so as to provide your most basic needs. If Don Quixote or Dead Souls or Boethius warn us about the astigmatisms stories can create, it is simultaneously true that there is no getting fully outside of the directendess of narrative. The fact that these warnings are delivered in story form is of course an important consideration. We are always within some overall storied framework, some already-oriented historical horizon. The most pertinent question to ask is how we revise the story in which we find ourselves for the better, not whether or not it is possible to jump outside of it, to get to some purportedly “objective” stance or to evaluate our choices from some allegedly “neutral” position.

Placed as we are in “this paradise of books,” both literally and figuratively, even existentially, seized by a mixture of awe, wonder, and trepidation as we look about, we should probably revisit an old-fashioned virtue—and here the Dumb Ox would agree —prudence.10

  1. Nikolay Gogol, Dead Souls, trans. Robert A. Maguire, Penguin, 2004, p. 352. Reinforcing the point I try make further on in this essay, another figure describes careful observation of experience as akin to reading a “living book,” p. 395. Moreover, there is also a warning about those who take their lead from European intellectual books rather than experience, explicitly connected to Don Quixote, p. 414. ↩︎
  2. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green, Bobbs-Merrill, 1962, p. 5. ↩︎
  3. See, for instance, Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy, Oxford University Press, 1979. ↩︎
  4. This is of course to make another Aristotelian claim: Physics II.8. It is also worth noting that Dante makes explicit reference to this point in Inferno, Canto IX, 100-5. ↩︎
  5. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield, 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 60. ↩︎
  6. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, trans. and ed. Betty Radice, rvsd. M. T. Clanchy, Penguin, 2003, p. 130. ↩︎
  7. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Shocken, 2007 [1955], p. 71. ↩︎
  8. Two important thinkers from whom I have drawn my thoughts here: Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press, 1989, Paul Ricœur, Soi-même comme une autre, Le Seuil, 1990, and Parcours de la reconnaissance, Stock, 2004. ↩︎
  9. An important takeaway from Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Harvard University Press, 2008. See my review here. ↩︎
  10. Thomas Aquinas, Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. Thomas McDermott, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 406. ↩︎
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