On Symbiosis Between Humans and Books

The book medium itself is a trusty format. It can be read and reread. It can be started or stopped at any point. It can persused at any speed: as slow as Ulysses or as swift as a throwaway potboiler. For the truly devoted reader residing in an urban environment, with careful dexterity and enough practice, even a bulky hardcover can be balanced in one hand while standing in a moving subway during rush hour.

A book can be the subject of a conversation. Hey, wazzat your reading? Any good? or That’s a great book! or Fertheloveofchrist, why are you reading Judith Krantz? In certain situations, the book operates as a sociological indicator. There are books that everyone is reading (e.g., Reading Lolita in Tehran), books that literary types are reading (e.g., My Name is Red) and specific books that are only read by an I-could-care-less-what-you-think-of-me sort of person (perhaps someone reading a thick Vollmann volume). There are even people who eschew books altogether, wondering why there’s “nothing” of value on their 57 channels. If only these people realized that a book represents one in a limitless array of channels, that the book is often smarter and that, on the whole, it is devoid of troubling, flashy and stress-inducing advertisements, save Don DeLillo’s “Celica.” Of course, for those who need an explicit visual medium, there are always pop-up books, which are known to amuse small children and John Birch Society members.

Books come in different sizes and shapes. There are mass-market paperbacks, which are short and thick and sometimes have questionable content and often fall to pieces if they have been packed tight in a box. There are trade paperbacks, which are almost as expensive as hardcovers but offer a very disingenuous price buffer that is often as little as five dollars, an emotional threshold that is perhaps most humiliating when the trade paperback edition is released months after a reader has purchased its hardcover edition, causing remorse for having neglected it, shame for having not read it, and a very peculiar kind of rage that is outside the understanding of most citizens. And of course, there are the robust hardcovers, which demand to be read without dust jackets, lest the jacket be torn or folded and thus divested of its “new” condition. In this sense, “preserving” the hardcover is the closest the bibliophile comes to anti-wrinkle cream, hair implants and liposuction. Like a mere mortal trying to squeeze a few years out of time, the obsessive hardcover enthusiast does not understand that time moves in only one direction and that books, like anything else, are suspect to age and will eventually fall apart. In fact, the book sometimes outlives its owner. And if imbued with a sturdily constructed spine, a book can last multiple lifetimes.

From a posterity standpoint, we can safely conclude that books pose a threat to humans. While dumb humans may beget dumb humans, books themselves are incapable of such inept procreation. And dumb books (and, sadly, dated books), unless having a fey appeal along the lines of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, are unlikely to endure. However, some smart books are likely to be forgotten because the rampant and variegated nature of the book population means that a reader cannot read them all. In this sense too, the book is superior to the human. While a book may come into contact with multiple humans throughout the course of its duration, often passed around through libraries, used bookstores and through social networks, it demands that the human adjust to its pleasurable format, forcing the human to recline, lie, sit or sometimes stand with hands perched out to hold both ends. What’s interesting is that the human demands no such physical contortions from the book on a regular basis, save through comfortably turning its pages and perhaps cracking the spine. Indeed, it should also be noted the book has remained in its rectangular form for several centuries.

While books have no specific sentience (although, ironically enough, books contain elements of human sentience), books also have no sexual needs whatsoever. And this too shows the unfair disparity between books and humans. If a book contains licentious elements, it is likely to be the victim of spontaneous jisms, which stain the page and cannot be properly cleaned up (unless paper is eventually replaced with Formica, a slippery affair that would alter the steady relationship between book and human). Even worse, while the book does not secrete any liquids whatsoever (save perhaps the ocassional wood shaving), the book often serves as a surrogate napkin or bandage, almost always without the human asking. Humans bleed, leave crumbs of sandwiches, write notes, and deface the book in numerous ways that they would never do to other humans. Through these various defacings, the book is very much a passive and innocent victim.

As preposterous as it may seem, some humans even burn books because they genuinely believe them to be a threat. In the many centuries that the book has been around, a book has never harmed or killed anyone, save perhaps in clusters overturned on large shelves collapsing and maiming other humans. But is it the book’s fault that the humans have failed to construct their bookshelves adequately? Or that humans have failed to exercise their sentience and work out how many books can stand on a shelf or how many shelves can rest in a building?

That humans would use such energies and waste such wanton aggression when books themselves remain harmless and somnolent suggests that either the human is more of a savage creature than he advertises or that books pose a belligerent menace that is utterly foreign to this thinker. Books have not declared war. They have not executed anyone. They have not locked themselves up in filthy prisons. And they certainly have not let anyone go cold and hungry. (Indeed, in a pinch, a book can be thrown into a fire for warmth or the paper eaten.) They have instead served as amicable beacons which convey information from one human to another. It is a pity that humans take this unique and seminal symbiotic relationship for granted.