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!