The Reading Radicals

Over lunch, a friend and I were talking about my post from yesterday and about David Edwards’s Burning All Illusions. Though I still fear that some of his ideas are being called in from way too far out in left field, it was wonderful to share ideas with some one who also senses that there is a kind of madness lurking at the edges of our nicely constructed social reality. She and I both would identify as “conscious hypocrites” (my husband’s phrase – he certainly includes himself in this camp too); sometimes I think we tend to get carried away by the sweep of our own consciousness. But that is another matter…

Since we are both library types, we drifted to the topic of the book itself. Usually, I am an obsessive underliner who has not truly absorbed a work unless its margins are dripping with my slanted script, but this time I actually borrowed Edwards’s book from the library. I was pleased because I found I was interacting with the text in a different way by taking notes in my journal as I read. Instead of cramming my thoughts between printed paragraphs, I was able to take the time to move further into ideas and take them over several pages. My liberation from the book was enabled by the fact that Google Books has the text available online. I could mark page numbers in my notes with the confidence that I could reference the book whenever I needed – even without paying Amazon twelve or fifteen dollars for the privilege.

I was about to wax complimentary on the fact that Edwards was such a democratic soul (in the originaly sense of “democratic” that goes beyond the limping giant that currently could be called democracy) that he allowed his decade old book to be fully available online, but I just looked a little closer and realized that “limited preview” in this case means that scattered pages are missing. The first chapters seem fully available, but it seems they start leaving out bits of the punchline as you delve deeper into the work. I guess I will figure out how lucky a reader I am depending on whether the passages I found most stirring are available. At any rate, the limitations of digitization projects does not really affect what we were trying to discuss (though it may prove a lot about my ambivalence about compensating people for their work and wanting to make information available to everyone).

We talked about the ownership of books and the drive to possess knowledge if not by reading them, then at least by purchasing them. There is so much ego tied up in filling shelves with spines that reflect who we are as people, both to those who might visit our homes and to ourselves (when all seems too confusing and desperate, at least we stare at the legion of titles and contemplate all of those authors who had things figured out well enough to write it all down). In a time when we drown in paper and curse junk mail and do not even have time to keep up with the magazines that arrive like clockwork, how is it that we can justify purchasing just one more book to get us over the free shipping limit?

My friend had the idea that it is an inherent distrust in the structures of our culture to be the ideal guardians of a beloved book; she felt that there were some volumes she couldn’t leave to chance because they just meant too much to her. I agree with that need to protect an object we can love so intimately, a sacred symbol of the ideas that alter the course of lives. Also I think such behavior is a half-acknowledgment of the sense of impermanence so many of us have. But I also think it to be an interesting example of the way that our addiction to the material and to security in general becomes abundantly clear. I can become galvanized by idealistic talk of changing the way that society defines success and decry the capitalist system that allows the rich to become even more ridiculously wealthy at the expense of those who happen to speak funny languages or live in far flung lands, but I shudder at giving up a book collecting habit that can be described as nothing other than a crazy luxury (especially since, as I said, I spend Monday through Friday in a library boasting one million volumes).

This little radical heart has a lot more searching to do before it is going to convince this bibliophile to change her ways. Maybe if I do a little more reading…

(And thanks to the divine Miss M for inadvertently playing a role in tonight’s entry!)

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One thought on “The Reading Radicals

  1. gartenfische March 4, 2008 / 8:06 pm

    “We talked about the ownership of books and the drive to possess knowledge if not by reading them, then at least by purchasing them. ”

    I have consciously tried to get away from this over the past several years. There is a lot of ego tied up book-owning for those of us who see ourselves as bookies. And yeah, too much caring about the books that others will find on our shelves. I don’t buy very many books anymore, I am a heavy library-user (I think you’ll appreciate that!).

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