Friday, January 05, 2007

Of the Old and the Beautiful

One of my most prized possessions is also one of the rattiest looking. It is an ugly, brown book that is waterstained, its pages fragile and greying with age. It shows the scars of almost 300 years worth of existence. Frankly, it does not look well loved, yet I love it.

What makes the book so special to me is the the three centuries worth of hands that have touched it. The book, which is a German collection of sermons for Sundays and high holy days, was published in 1708. It has all sorts of handwritten notes on its cover In 1790 someone signed and dated his name on one of the fly pages. There is, in fact, quite a bit of writing on the fly pages and endpapers. Somewhere over the years someone also left behind a scrap of a letter as a book mark. It is difficult to tell just how old the scrap is, but it's clearly old as it's written in a script no that died in Germany before my grandmother was born and is the faded brown of old fountain ink. It is a powerful thing to hold in one's hands an object that has seen so many history and been held by other hands with so many stories of their own.

It is these traces of humanity that are my favorite parts of this book. To think that I am in some way bound to these people who long ago touched, read and internalized the contents this object is an overwhelming epiphany. It is in some ways as though by touching the imprint they've left, I am touching them. Really, this is why I love books so much in general. People like to think of reading as a passive activity, but really it is not. It is a dialogue that is thoroughly active for the mind and sometimes even soul.

Through story we are connected to the imprint of author and to worlds of which we are not a part, yet somehow we become a part of them. In reading words (also viewing art, hearing music) we have the privilege of being privy to the imagination and inner workings of another, which thereby sparks our own imaginations. It is in entering into this dialogue that books (and art and music) connect us. Our shared stories connect us. And that, my friends, is why I love books so much. Studying literature and ideas is studying people and we are an interesting lot.

Conclusory note: There are those who will think these thoughts cheesy. If it must be so, let them (the thoughts, not the people) be something good like Roquefort or Havarti and not some crappy brick of Velveeta or jar of Cheese Whiz, though I guess for that it would have to be "cheesy" and not cheesy.

Note 2: In that last sentence, "Studying literature and ideas is studying people and we are an interesting lot", I have just had what is turning out to be a "What do I want to be when I grow up?" epiphany of sorts. All is not yet unravelled, but perhaps some of the fog is lifting. Go me!


Anne said...

I have a German text book that is over 100 years old now. I am totally fascinated by it and I don't even know how or when it fell into my possession. I think it might have been from my old highschool when they cleaned out the closets. Man, they start out with fraktur-
My boyfriend was given a German dictionary his great-grandfather used when he was learning German. Just think of how many words it is missing!
I agree that old books have a special power. Even when they are reference books!
(Yes, my website needs to be updated- perhaps being inspired by your regular writing, I will finally get on top of that.)

Martina said...

Thanks, Anne! I figured you'd get what I meant. I hope you WILL be inspired by my January writing project. I always enjoyed your writing and would love to read more of it! So far this has been a good project fo me. The goal is basically just to make this whole writing every day thing a habit that doesn't fall prey that whole weasely "I'll do it tomorrow" syndrom to which I am so prone. By declaring it here, there's a shame factor, if I dont actually do it.

It's funny you should comment - I was just thinking the other day about Kevin, Jacques Derrida and the infamous "Topf ring". It's difficult to believe that was all a decade (+) ago! How did we stop being so young???

Jen said...

I have to laugh! I just read your comments here, then opened the brain book I'm almost done with and read the following: "Fortunately though, psychologists seem to have discovered a way in which we can develop good habits, instantly. the secret is not just to make a resolution... You must work out how and when you'll do it....To use the grandly official jargon, you must form an "implementation intention." ... These implementation intentions can have near-magical effects on us, it appears." (from that Cordelia Fine book I was telling you about -- it's really good. So good on you for your writing Implementation Intention!

Martina said...

Go me! Your brain book sounds interesting! It's good to know that my crackpot scheme actually has some sound theory behind it.
The whole point really was for all of this results in developing a good habit of writing something daily. It's an area where I lack discipline. The blog itself is not so important (except for that my shame will now be public, if I don't follow through). I'm also finding an added bonus: Coming up with all these things to write about may help smack down my evil inner gnome, who has the idea that I have no ideas. (That's one of the things I tell myself in my down moments, "Sure, my writing is TECHNICALLY ok, but any monkey can learn grammar. I don't have any interesting ideas.") I do have to love that my idea has a fancy name - implemation intention, implemation intention. It just rolls off the tongue.