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Books have evolved, but their fundamental conceit remains

Inset Foundation | 29 Jun 2019Total Views : 83
Books have evolved, but their fundamental conceit remains

Author : Keerthik Sasidharan,
Taken from, The Hindu, UPDATED: JUNE 29, 2019 21:33 IST

Reading reconfigures our inner worlds, it provokes and stirs

A few days ago I came across a line by a now little remembered German poet Jean Paul: “Books are thick letters to friends.” That phrase fragment, its lapidary precision — could that still be true? Letter writing is nearly obliterated as an activity. Of those who claim to still write them, we speak with wonder.

An entire generation or two is alive in India today who have never used an inland letter, their tongues and lips have never felt the odious tastelessness of government issued adhesives. Neither have they experienced the quiet desperation of waiting for a postman, the moment of solitude while composing a letter, or the pleasure of reading it aloud to others. Letter-writing, like love in some marriages, has vanished from our social lives and few seem to have noticed the absence. Other distractions, expediencies, and obligations have taken its place.

Meanwhile, at least since Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, books also have undergone transformations.

From monks and aristocrats, who were the original producers and consumers of the written word, to our times when mass literacy and inexpensive printing are widespread, the history of the book has become intimately tied to the history of reading and a history of human self-understanding. Yet, the fundamental conceit of books — to reconfigure our inner worlds, to provoke and stir us — has been a formidable constant throughout. In the face of both — the vanishing of letters and the expanding readership of books — Jean Paul’s phrase about the intimacy of books, reading, and the community of co-believers in the written word retains its original provocation.


Up until modernity, reading was an act of participating in a community of those who could read against those who couldn’t, which for most parts of history was much of humanity.

Circle of friendship

However, the nature of this community of readership — the circle of friendship — was contingent on who came together and what task the act of reading sought to answer. By the 19th century — an age of empires, ideas without borders, and steamships — reading became the wet nurse who raised the literate. The national canon became the means to facilitate the sustenance of a vision of an existing order.

As German philosopher Peter 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?”

No one understood this ability of reading to transform individuals into ideologues better than the Communists in USSR. ‘Study, study, study’ became the Leninist motto and inevitably a joke about propagandistic excesses. Yet the message was clear — if the creation of the nation-state was a way to escape a Hobbesian state of war among polities, then reading the pre-approved books, especially one prescribed by the nation-state or the party, was a way to avoid the barbarisms that lurk within us. But for all these claims of ennobling, in our age of great distractions, the act of reading, the possession of books is still often seen as the indulgences of those with disposable incomes. But to conclude thus would be a mistake.

At the New York Public Library, where I often browse through the stacks — there are those who wander in — homeless, unbathed, unshaven — seeking a place to rest, a moment of reprieve from the harsh streets outside. Yet, like the rest of us, they too browse glitzy magazines filled with women of impossible beauty, make elaborate notes in private notebooks, and a few read volumes with great care. By virtue of their presence, these stragglers from the margins remind us about how reading percolates into lives in ways, far removed from those who think of reading in political, activist, or ennobling terms. It is also a reminder that a community of readers is different from a community of book buyers.

Reading, German philosopher Martin Heidegger believed, allowed for “befriending of man through the word of the other”. But to recognise this, we need to stop treating reading and books as utilitarian tools. Instead, we need to think of reading more radically, more existentially — not merely as prescriptions to tame the mind into somnolent dutifulness but as a way to calm human angst, to reconcile with the disquiet of existence, and ultimately to bathe in the same reservoir of words that others 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 at the world. This enlargement of what books allow for is how they become thick letters to friends.

The author is a writer and lives in New York City.