We may still live for the rustle of the pages
IN AN ESSAY by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, I came across a line by a little remembered poet Jean Paul which said, ‘books are thick letters to friends’. For a moment, that phrase fragment and its lapidary matter-of-factness seized my attention. Could this be true? Are books truly thick letters to friends? Or was it a poet’s fondness for an elegant turn of phrase that had made its way onto the pages across centuries and eventually into Sloterdijk’s own writings that have flirted with 19th century German idealism?
In our times, letter-writing is nearly obliterated as an activity, far less the very act of writing ‘thick letters’. Of those who claim to write letters, we speak of them with incredulity and a harmless form of envy. A few months ago, I realised that an entire generation in India today have never used an inland letter, their tongues and lips have never felt the odious tastelessness of government-issue adhesives. To romanticise letters out of nostalgia is of course silly, even if there remains a suspicion that something has been lost when the physicality of letters have yielded to the ephemera of emails. In parts, this disquiet is because when we hit ‘delete’ and recompose an email’s text, thus erasing any physical sign of our tentativeness—a scratched out phrase here, a rewritten sentence there—we present our thoughts to the world as if they were painlessly conceived, like some virgin birth, rather than being born after fumbles, missteps, and brooding. There is an element of artifice to it all. In this sense, contrary to what Jean Paul had in mind, our emails have become like our books—cleansed of errors, edited, and packaged to present the best of oneself in the soiree of self-presentations. Meanwhile, the mania of public-spirited letter-writing, be it to the governments or to the editors of newspapers—to correct the author’s factual errors or disabuse him of his grandiloquent claims—that preoccupied more than one generation of the past, feels like an old ritual whose meaning has been obscured by time. By now, letters, like love in some marriages, have vanished from our social lives and few seem to have noticed their absence. Other distractions have seduced us.
Meanwhile, the book—wherein imagination is metamorphosed through labour, ink and machines into a physical object— has undergone transformations in audiences, attributes, and content that few would have imagined half a millennia ago when it began to proliferate. The great French historian Lucien Febvre wrote that the ‘book’ as we recognise it today—not codices, manuscripts or even printing—was born into an interregnum between the gunpowder-led innovation in arms in early medieval Europe in the 12th century and the eventual ‘enlargement’ of the world thanks to the explorations of Christopher Columbus in the 15th century. When the French king Louis IX was shown a beautiful and elaborate codex—sheets of paper, folded and stitched in the middle to create a spine—he replied that ‘in his view books should be less sumptuous and more read’. Books were, in a way, the original handheld devices. The history of the book however goes beyond the ‘history of technique’, which is often what any history of printing becomes, and instead is often the history of proliferation itself.
Before books arrived, much of the writings were transmitted across Eurasia in manuscripts, which were recorded on parchments—animal skin used to write or print upon—or on vellum made out of calf skin. The arrival of paper as an alternative to parchment revealed that the economics of parchments would slowly come under pressure—even if early medieval European paper was inferior to parchments themselves (for this paper ‘had a rougher surface, and was less impervious to ink and less amenable to pigments used by the illuminators’). Nevertheless, economics began to assert itself. Per Aloys Ruppel, a German medievalist, who is quoted in an essay by Marcel Thomas, a French librarian and historian, every volume of the Gutenberg Bible which would have been printed on vellum would have required 170 skins, and 30 copies would have needed around 5,000 skins. Comparing this to a book produced by paper, we learn from Ruppel’s calculation that to produce the same amount of text as in 100 paper copies, nearly 15,000 vellum skins would have been necessary. An external development that accelerated the adoption of paper, which in turn pushed the adoption of books, was the emergence of European universities from the 13th century, which in turn birthed the rise of new professions like ‘Scriveners’ or Stationers—who were clerical staff serving the universities as copyists. An elaborate ecology of copiers, paper merchants, the guild of papermakers (‘paupeleurs’), those entrusted with ensuring the original manuscripts (called ‘exemplars’) were safely kept, tax officials who charged for each new book copy of an original manuscript, those who sourced the right kind of water, the entire rag-picking industry which acted as raw materials for paper-making, metallurgists who specialised in metallic reliefs for printing—all began to take shape between the 12th and the 15th century in Europe. From a demand perspective, the original producers and consumers of the written word, who were monks and aristocrats, made space for a new demographics of consumers—students, merchants, mendicants on the move. Most recognisable of these changes, for our times, was the birth of the authorial strategies to earn a living out of this new invention. In the absence of literary festivals, blurbs from fellow authors, or speaking circuit, the author was forced to find patrons—from noble ladies to the King of France himself—who would hopefully reward the writer. A well-known patron’s mere acquaintanceship with a book was often deemed adequate to spur sales of the book or requests for translations. Some authors, as early as the 13th century, Thomas tells us, ran a side business by becoming publishing houses for their own works, and while some others simply became a cross between book-seller and a literary agent, acting as nodal points through which books changed hands and reputations were burnished or sullied. By 1550, traditional manuscripts in libraries across Europe had become an item for collectors and specialists, while books became the principal object of acquisition, traffic and commerce.
Unlike other enterprises-be it commodities or software, whose principal aim is to affect the exteriority of our lives: How we eat and how we live-the world of books fundamentally reconfigures how we think of ourselves
But unlike other enterprises—be it commodities or software, whose principal aim is to affect the exteriority of our lives: how we eat and how we live—the world of books fundamentally reconfigures how we think of ourselves. The expressed ambition, especially by the early 20th century when politics and arts had consummated to birth new imaginaries, the book became the vehicle to describe utopias of the past and the future, while chronicling the imperfections of the present. To this end, writers have plunged headlong into labyrinths of their own making. Scholars have inveigled themselves into societies that are both alien and familiar to discover and narrate what awaits their eye and prejudices, which subsequently acquires the imprimatur of facts courtesy their appearance in ‘books’. Even as late as 2019, Frederic Jameson, the prominent and influential Marxist academic, in his most recent work makes a case to classify the writings of billions of people solely on the basis of what is purportedly embodied in those texts: ‘Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidnal dynamic—necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.’ Books, in short, have been ascribed capacities that far exceed the physicality of its pages. Some meanwhile have recognised the impossible burdens and responsibilities thrust upon a book. Words, and books, they realised are trivial approximations of the world in front of them, which in the best of times is a prison with no walls. Along the way, as these experiments and recognitions arise and fall, like jesters in the court of global finance, some authors have transformed themselves into celebrities, where the product they sell is themselves. Others, like Thomas Pynchon or OV Vijayan, slowly effaced themselves, content to let their words do their talking.
In the 18th century Europe, when Jean Paul wrote, he stood halfway, temporally speaking, between the age of Gutenberg’s printing in the 15th century and us today. But should a person from the 18th century return to our present age, he would discover the achievements of our age and its conceits indistinguishable from magic and folly. We can cure grave illness and fly above the birds and yet, despite all of our claims, we have barely been able to make ourselves any happier. This gulf between the physicality of our lives and the promise contained within it remains true, even for relatively stable technologies like writing and books. The physicality of greasy presses and metallic reliefs used for printing has given way to digital devices that fit multiple encyclopaedias into our pockets. The painstaking efforts to remember and search, the imperial armies of librarians armed with techniques of memory, have in turn been rendered irrelevant by the wizardry of hypertexts and the magical realism of search engines. Despite these, the abilities to transform imagination into tradable books still involve familiar features that our visitor from the 18th century would recognise. Writers still struggle to exorcise their literary excesses, editors must winnow the wheat from the chaff, and critics must still learn to overcome their illusions of self-importance. This person would however notice that, as global markets developed throughout the 19th and 20th century, and continues today, the reputations of writers themselves rode the coat tails of ascendant empires—Wordsworth with the British empire, Hemingway with the American empire, Mo Yan in our times as China flexes its cultural muscle. In response to these political ascendancies, literary provocateurs and rebels from the margins of powers have understandably counterchallenged. They insist that they too had a voice, an alternate conception of history, a view of the world distinct from the core that could be captured by a book, their own book, their inimitable voice. Our visitor would conclude that there was no escaping the imperium of the written word—both power and protest rely on it. The limitations and manifestations of writing and images in turn constrain our abilities to present ourselves. We are not the ones we have been waiting for, as Gandhi and later Obama said, but rather we are the ones our technologies of self-representation allow us to be.
All the while, snuck away in the attic of modern culture, like unheralded medieval monks who copied manuscripts, modern-day translators have patiently laboured with the phantasmagorias dreamt up by writers. In turn, unwittingly, they mid-wived furious debates: if the original was as good as the translation, about what did originality mean and, more fundamentally, can words that mean the same signify different things? (Walter Benjamin argues elsewhere that brot in German and pain in French mean the same but their way of ‘arriving at meaning’ is entirely different.) Provoked by such questions of meaning and the source of meaning itself—there slowly grew, like mushrooms after rains, an entire cottage industry of literary theorists—the love children of philologists and philosophers, who grew up to be often self-indulgent and provocative, lacking the scholasticism of the former and capacity for abstraction of the latter. Inevitably, the more ambitious among them became the high priests of hermeneutics, post-structuralism, and assorted humourless games of identity-based games of resentments, in which interpretations and subtexts became the sword and scabbard, while the author and his ink-soiled fingers became shoulders, upon which was placed ideological muskets that fired several rounds of full metal jacket. The target was, and remains, tradition, and implicitly hierarchy—not the abolishment of it, but merely the replacing of the old order by the new. University presses, with access to capital, bolstered the reputation of these self-declared radicals with tenure track positions, as a younger generation who followed these aristocrats of academia, lured by similar dreams, were slowly reduced to assorted forms of concubinage as adjunct professors and lecturers. All however, worshipped the altar of the written word with prayers for a book deal as a career-making panacea.
Yet, for this extraordinary efflorescence of the written word, our imaginary 18th century visitor would be puzzled. Not since the arrival of the codex format in 4th century Byzantine, which replaced the papyrus parchments, or the emergence of typographic printing in 1470s Germany, have we seen the kind of tumult that the publishing industry has undergone over the last three or four decades—first, since the arrival of the television, and then the emergence of that great annihilator of all attentions, the internet. All the while, what has changed was the answer to the question of what it means to consume the written word. From the rise of mass literacy to the proliferation of the written word in a variety of formats—from government-issued circulars, corporate advertisements, academic textbooks to the niche reading habits of aesthetes—the written word, books, and reading itself became means to enter into a collective. For much of human history, when illiteracy was the norm and the ability to read was an exception, books, or more precisely reading, were means to form a community. Books, in this sense, in Jean Paul’s words, were ‘thick letters to friends’. In antiquity—the age when Greeks ceded grounds to the Romans in the history of the West—parchments and codex became means to birth a deep human fantasy of solidarity. Like runners in a relay race, the Greeks handed over their analytical speculations and feverish imaginations over to the Romans, where their texts became the batons. This transmission was possible thanks to the open spiritedness of the receiver who saw in these Greek texts the warmth and wisdom of letters from friends. The same ethos of transmission and reception were repeated when, a millennium later, Greek texts arrived in Europe via the Arabs, or Hindu texts arrived in the Islamic world via the Persians.
Up until modernity, reading was an act of participating in a community of those who can read against those couldn’t read, which for most parts of history, was much of humanity itself. However, the nature of this community of readership—the circle of friendship—was contingent on who came together and what task did the act of reading seek to answer. By the 19th century—the age of empires, newspapers without borders, and steamships—reading became the wet nurse who raised the literate to venerate the breast milk of the nation-state and its ideology. The national canon became the means to facilitate the sustenance of the existing order. As Sloterdijk writes, ‘what are modern nations except the effective fictions of literate publics, who have become a like-minded collective of friends through reading the same books?’ This reading of friendships—a state of being citizenry manufactured under the auspices of the state-sanctioned pedagogy—goes against how friendship was thought for much of history. For the Greeks and thereafter, friendship was something born as part of one’s being—like an infinite web that emerges out of the spider’s infinitesimal body—which sought to complete itself by seeking another who complemented to make whole. Over the centuries, Montaigne, Kant, Nietzsche, and Derrida in Politiques de l’amitié (The Politics of Friendship) have all returned to explore the meaning of a phrase that was found in the works of the Greek philosopher Diogenes Laertius who wrote ‘o philoi, oudeis philos’ (‘O friends, there are no friends’). At the heart of this fragment was the idea that friendship was a way of completing oneself—which in turn means the quest for a true friend is a quest to seek ways to complete oneself, an eternal quest that is condemned to a sense of incompleteness. In contrast, by our times, under the watchful tutelage of the nation-state, friendship acquired the characteristics of membership to a club. The locus of identification went from an interpersonal solidarity to a relationship mediated by purported loyalties to a supervening extrinsic reality like the Nation or, more abstractly, the State.
The wheels of taste seem to have turned a full circle. It feels as if the e-readers have found a niche and are unlikely to grow any further. Many have returned to the pleasures of yellowing pages and papercuts; dogeared books are back in the hands of many of my fellow travellers
No one understood this idea of traducing humans into party loyalists by reading and study classes better than the communists, especially in the Soviet Union. To explain this conceit of state-mandated self-improvement more colourfully, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek narrates the following joke:
Marx, Engels, and Lenin were each asked what they preferred, a wife or a mistress. Marx, whose attitude in intimate matters is well known to have been rather conservative, answered “A wife”; Engels, who knew how to enjoy life, answered, of course, “A mistress”; the surprise comes with Lenin, who answered “Both, wife and mistress!” Is he dedicated to a hidden pursuit of excessive sexual pleasures? No, since he quickly explains: “This way, you can tell your mistress that you’re with your wife, and your wife that you are about to visit your mistress…” “And what do you actually do?” “I go to a solitary place and read, read, and read!”
The joke’s message is clear: if the nation-state is a way to escape an Hobbesian state of war among polities, then reading the right books, especially ones prescribed by the nation-state, was a way to avoid the barbarisms that lurked within us. Jean Paul’s generation similarly believed that a ‘humanist’ was a formulaic confection of beast + spirit + reading. But after the atomic bomb, after the extermination camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz—where human morality slipped into a moral black hole—this idea that reading is an activity for self-improvement is untenable. In his essay ‘Letter on Humanism’, the great philosopher (and himself a minor functionary in the Nazi Party) Martin Heidegger similarly arrives at this cul de sac and declares such glib efforts to ‘de-beastialize’ humans in service of civilisation as useless. Instead of treating reading and books as utilitarian tools, he argued that we must think of reading more radically: not merely as a corpus of prescriptions to tame the mind into somnolent dutifulness but as a way to create, to calm the human angst, to discover a quiet that pervades beyond all human flux, to bathe in the same words that others elsewhere have dipped their toes into. It is a view about reading that privileges the neighbourliness of minds rather than one that thinks of reading as a standalone Olympian gaze into the world or as an industrial-scale manufacturer of citizens.
Nowhere is this community-mindedness of books revealed more than in that often overlooked part of most societies: the small-sized community or village library. In most Western cities, this institution with its overworked and earnest librarians, a slow but efficient network of inter-library loan system across municipalities, a few sofas and desks, and a space for community gathering, is the closest we see to an institutional actualisation of this idea of reading as a fount of camaraderie. These temples of books are often underfunded for these are largely resistant to explicit ideological preening of political parties. Outside these buildings, the ferocious winds of finance capital and private equity blow wildly, seeking to enter into any institution that leaves its door ajar, often in the name of that almighty God of our times: economic efficiency.
At the New York Public Library, which is nebulously scattered, housed in inconspicuous buildings all across this island city of Manhattan that dangles off the American mainland, like some bookmark, readers arrive in all shapes, brimming over with unknowable motivations. Here, some read, some browse through the stacks, some escape their office work briefly during lunch, while some others try to simply take a nap. Among these citizens of the everyday world—some perfumed, some commonplace, almost all drawing a salary—there are also those who wander in—homeless, unbathed, unshaven—seeking a place to rest, their uncut fingernails browsing magazines filled with women of impossible beauties. And if opportunity avails, the library also becomes a place to defecate with dignity in the warmth of public toilets. The community library is the last of public spaces in America, unbesmirched by the calculus of wealth or privilege. Like gargoyles in some medieval European cathedral, by virtue of their presence these stragglers from the margins of society reveal the unkempt and grotesque to those who think of citizenship and reading in ennobling terms. Yet, seeing these individuals there—many of whom, despite their struggles, find as much comfort in the written word as the rest—is a reminder that a community of readers, which is different from a community of book buyers, can acquire many forms. The confederacy of fellow readers come disguised, far removed from the ones we see at manic book festivals or the elite in academia.
But for all the virtues of public libraries, books and reading don’t live outside the world they inhabit. And that world is capitalist, with its own immutable laws that govern all. For long stretches, booksellers—small, independent, family-run units—were indistinguishable in their spirit and ambitions from the libraries of the city. To an extent, they were constrained by capital which resulted in common responses, familiar tactics to further their trade and grow their business. In all of it, the author and his book found ways to be, to survive, and if lucky, to flourish. But all that changed when corporate and Wall Street money poured into the book industry and the technology of distribution began to radically reinvent an age-old business. Spreadsheets took over the logic of books in ways that discomfited the commercial instincts of old booksellers. Aesthetics and scholasticism were not just an inconvenience but also a luxury in the age where the calculus of capital saw books as yet another commodity, no different than rubber, tea, or mortgage derivatives. The business logic, and its human embodiments, the MBAs, began to hone in on the most expensive aspect of book publishing—distribution. If only there was a way to distribute books en masse, at nearly zero cost. Serendipitously, as if ordained by the asterisms of capitalism, there came together a concordance of internet, inexpensive handheld devices and global trade that allowed for minerals from Africa to find labour in China in the service of software designed in America. All of these tectonic shifts occurred in mines, factories and corporate boardrooms—far from the everyday lives of readers. But the winds of change had begun to sweep by the mid-2000s. It was no longer sacrilegious to ask if books would survive, or worse, if reading would survive. These were questions one posed if one wanted to be seen as thinking about the future.
While travelling on the New York subway—a metallic ark of people and races, body odour and ambitions—I often watch what people do as they await the doors of that hurtling projectile to open. Some knit, some talk to others, and some talk to themselves. Some others stare vacantly ahead. A few immerse themselves in a book, or at least their eyes bore into the text on their laps, perhaps as a means to avoid the world. A few years ago, however, the books began to vanish. The expensively dressed fellow travellers carried an e-reader. Before long, thanks to Amazon’s talents for mass production, an epidemic of e-readers on the subways came our way. Reading, always a private ritual, was suddenly whisked away into a hermetically closed space. No external markers revealed the history of the book that one’s fellow traveller carried: what sort of book was the other person reading, was it an old edition, what was the cover. Technology had flattened all histories and transformed all markers of human engagement with a written word into an easily distributable electron on a touchscreen.
But now, slowly, nearly a decade later, the wheels of taste seem to have turned a full circle. It feels as if the e-readers have found a niche and are unlikely to grow any further. Many have returned to the pleasures of yellowing pages and papercuts; dogeared books are back in the hands of many of my fellow travellers. Every so often, there is a nod of recognition when a fellow traveller is reading a known name, a forgotten voice, or an unseen edition. Conversations are once again an easier possibility. Three weeks ago, I saw a man read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and he saw the glint of recognition in my eye. We nodded at each other, a moment of benediction bestowed upon us both by a writer who lived a century ago. This happenstance of unexpected encounters finds more colour and life at used bookstores where $1.99 books make themselves available for those who go in search of them. What awaits are forgotten classics and first-edition covers with photos of authors in their youth (a Salman Rushdie with an head full of hair, a skinny Gabriel García Márquez, or a doe-eyed Kamala Markandaya). But most bookstores, like vendors of other goods, must operate under constraints of capital and return on equity. Inside, these bookstores may sell new biographies of Marx and books about the evils of consumerism, but they recognise that the four horsemen of consumer capitalism—rents, cost of capital, technology, consumer taste—stalk them permanently. But unlike other vendors of fast-moving consumer goods, booksellers must struggle for that most scarce item of all: the attention span of readers.
To this end, the successful bookstores employ, like magicians, a variety of tricks in plain sight that are easy to miss. The Strand, an independent and family-owned bookstore (in contrast to bookstores run by corporate behemoths such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble), situated at the cusp of midtown and downtown Manhattan, proudly announces that it is ‘home to 18 miles of books’. The bookstore’s main floor is usually a melee of passersby, dedicated readers, holiday shoppers for Christmas, clerks, and book thieves. A perpetual rearrangement of the same books into new categories allows for a permanent sense of newness. What the Strand has learnt and executes with great aplomb is on its recognition that the real enemy of reading is not video games or cable TV, but distraction. However, in their genius for business, they have recognised that the enemy of reading is not necessarily the enemy of selling books. To attract more customers into their store, into the community of fellow purchasers, the Strand doesn’t shy away from the great lessons of marketing and social media. Every day, some portion of their stacks is being rearranged, every few months they change the layout of floors, their clerical staff are seemingly forever young (probably underpaid relative to profits), for weeks on end some months they have authors streaming in to read their works, they have explicitly carved out spaces for children to read and roil about—all bringing in a continual impression of movement, of energies. All of these frenzies and hustle—one part, a necessity to survive in Manhattan as a business, another, the urgencies imposed by the evolving book industry—masquerade the fact that the products they sell are books, a 600-year-old technology that demands your commitment and attention. At The Strand, they struggle valiantly to associate reading, if not the act of purchasing books, with lightness, with effortlessness, with discovery and serendipity, with the possibility of self-improvement. In this, they mimic the old claims of Humanism that Jean Paul would recognise. Only this time, self-improvement comes with a 10 per cent discount if you have a gift card.
The community of book readers in this age of late capitalism has acquired its own unique form—neither is it scholasticism of the medieval era, nor a medium for ideological commitments of the 19th century, or even the despairing existentialism of the post World War II era. Instead, by now, reading and the camaraderie of fellow readers are a distilled expression of our times: loyal to none but the next shiny thing in an inexhaustible array of shiny things that the market throws our way in exchange for our fleeting loyalties. The old illusions about self-improvement and collective aspirations born of reading are dead, but the new ones are nowhere to be seen. Till then, we wander from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, in hopes of discovering another who wanders the same page, somewhere in the world. A fellow reader who might also become our friend.