Reflections on philosophy and culture

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Love of Books

To be the genuine article, falling in love must strike you as the work of blind chance. This is true even when you set out to fall in love and get exactly what you seek. When it happens, you can't help but think: "What a bizarre coincidence it is that I got the very thing I wanted using the very means I was fully convinced would get it for me!"

This is as true for books as it is for people. Whenever I think about having fallen in love with this or that book, I always remember that first encounter as serendipity. Because someone had viciously ripped off its back cover, I took The Return of the King off the shelf of my elementary school library and fell in love with Tolkien. Because the clerk at the comic book store told me that Liz Fraser - the singer of my favorite band, the Cocteau Twins - wrote her lyrics in imitation of James Joyce's dreamspeak, I picked up Finnegans Wake and fell in love with James Joyce. Because it sounded like science fiction in a book description, I checked out The Lost Ones and fell in love with Beckett. Because a former student of my high school English teacher didn't want his old books anymore, I took them (at the time thinking nothing more than "Hey, free stuff!") and fell in love with Sartre and Frege. In each case, I discovered a book because I was under some misconception about it or because I was looking for something else.

I sometimes think about these chance encounters and wonder if I'll ever have one like it again. It's rather like wondering whether you'll ever fall in love again in that pure, starry-eyed and silly way you did when you were a teenager. Are such transformative experiences only possible when you're very young?

There are many reasons I can think of why I'm likely never to have such an experience again. Perhaps I'm too invested in an academic career to feel innocent glee at discovering a new book to fall in love with. Perhaps there simply isn't enough time for new books when I need to be writing. Perhaps books are far too easy to acquire for me to get excited by getting my hands on them; perhaps I just can't feel the elation I did when I was a kid with no money and only intermittent access to poorly stocked libraries who nevertheless ran into something remarkable.

Perhaps, perhaps perhaps. Hopefully, these are just the thoughts one has when one hasn't fallen in love with a new book for a while. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised and fall head over heels for something new - just as the cynical and loveless are exactly the ones who tend to get swept most violently into new love when it comes around. I know this: every time I pick a new book up, I secretly hope this is exactly what will happen...


  1. I wrote a long comment, but it has disappeared. So, instead I'll write something completely different.

    When I lived in Poland, books in English were so hard to come by that I would've read a Hardy Boys novel if I could find it.

    Lower your standards, and all kinds of interesting possibilities emerge.

    Actually, there is nothing like reading to your two-year old. I browse the children's lit stacks at the library every Wednesday morning. I've found some phenomenal work.

  2. And then there's that time, recently, when convinced you would never like or even read a graphic novel, your friend Mandel tells you Watchmen is a must read and you find yourself, incredulously, loving it.