A Garden In The Pocket
an essay by
an essay by
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket. ~ Chinese Proverb
Introductory Note: the glade today happily presents an essay by Seattle poet and writer John Olson. This is the essay’s first publication. The accompanying illustrations have been supplied by your humble host.
A Garden In The Pocket
If you have to argue someone into seeing how superior a book is to an electronic gadget, you’re never going to win that argument. You might as well be talking to a curlew, or a scoop of chocolate ice cream.
But if you do choose to make such an argument, you might begin by saying that a book is a sensual object, a generous clairvoyance, like an elegy of snow, or a palomino doing handsprings down the sidewalk.
A book is a simple, portable, companionable entity. It does not need batteries, signal, click wheel, account, flash memory, digital rights management or global positioning system, and does not need to be plugged into anything. If you bring that one book with you to the beach, to work for a lunch break, carry it on a plane or pack it into your suitcase, you will only be able to access that book. But I see that as an asset, not a liability.
The ability to access an unlimited number of books, blogs, bogs, slogs, frogs, ezines, bee-zines, enchiridions, periodicals, articles, particles, or farticles on a single device is eminently convenient, but leads, inevitably, to superficial flirtations, bits of flimsy data that never cohere, never synthesize like a polymerase chain reaction into the strand of a thought, or the protein of an idea. A book requires commitment. Some books are easy to disappear into but many books require a cooperation that rigorously exercises on one’s capacity to focus. This is the downfall of the Internet: surfing.
This is the boon of the book: duration.
There are times when surfing and dalliance are good. Too much concentration can weigh the mind down. Caprice is an appetizer. A stimulant. But you cannot rely on appetizers for nourishment. Popcorn can only go so far. Eventually the mind craves real substance. And for that you need a book. Letter and leather. A stratum with a spine.
A book has a feel and a smell that you cannot find in anything electronic. A book is an object which is the end result of a great deal of effort. So that whatever making goes into the making of the book will make you wonder at what a wonderful thing a book is. Especially by comparison to a clothes iron, or a TV, or a set of patio furniture.
Look down. Down at the ground. There is consolation in seeds. They become trees. Leaves. Pages in a book. The book opens, and a skeleton of sound dances from page to page in an astronomy of ink.
I would love to see a tornado leap out of a book and capitalize on the turbulence of its spectral cartilage, turning electronic gadgetry, laptops and cell phones and iPods and Kindles into cataclysms of doubt and speculation. A tornado of thought a big whirling column of air a disaster on the ground throwing debris around and around like the chaos of thought in somebody’s head. A column of words in a column of air whirling from paragraph to paragraph. Word to word in a syntax of slippery association ideas engorged with ink constellations of thought embedded in warm paper and dark spines of golden titles.
Gravity and books go hand in hand we live in a universe of weights and spatial relationships, sensations, secretions, perceptions, a physical world is what I am getting at, a world in which it feels good to have a body, inhabit a body, affirm a body, even when it ages and creaks and wrinkles it’s better to have a body than walk around without one. Is that what a ghost is? A personality who has forgotten their skin, bone, glands, needs, desires? An eidolon without hair? Muscle? Proprioception?
Society can do that to people. It can make you numb to yourself. Not just routine and monotony and the chronicles of our lives told in the pull of cables and grease but the denial of impulses the killing of instincts.
Colors climb into the sky and float. That’s what colors do. The elevator chronicles are full of such tales. Colors rise into the sky and bleed hills of undulating water. One’s brain arranges a thought to form patterns and finds that the color of despair is a stained glass window full of parables and angels, that it is possible to decorate your anguish with cathedral glass, dimes of moisture intriguing as mirrors, wisps of incense spiraling upward in languid curls, a pair of lips producing animals of sound.
My head is a bowl, my nose is a solicitation. Coins of pain jingle in pockets of pleasure. Jellyfish dangle in open sea reverie. I open a book and find a realm of wilderness, a sweet chunk of living cognition erratic and rich as the jungles of Borneo, a clod of earth teeming with seeds and worms.
In the Trobriand Islands, a magician lays an assortment of herbs down on a mat, then covers that with another mat, to make a kind of magical sandwich. Then he recites an incantation into it, holding his head close so that nothing escapes the movement of his breath, but is stirred by it, because the magic of the incantation, the magic of the words, is in his breath. The herbs sandwiched between the mats is a voice trap. Where the words are carried to another world. Not unlike a book.
I admit, I am tempted to buy a Kindle because it would be nice to be able to read under the covers when my wife is trying to sleep. That sounds very cozy. Certainly better than trying to hold a penlight and maneuver the pages of a book. But when I read something on a screen, I do not feel private, I do not feel autonomous or unrestricted, I do not feel independent in my thinking and reflections. The medium is the message, and the medium in the instance of anything electronic is highly public. It is a public domain. Smacks of corporate culture. The glib and dehumanized. Cramped cubicles and glossy desks. You cannot get around that.
When I think of books I think of them housed in magnificent libraries with spiral staircases and gargoyles dribbling the liquor of heaven. Hunchbacks diving behind shelves in secrecies of alchemical transformation. Women in illumined solitudes like the women in the Dutch paintings of the 17th century, Vermeer’s maiden holding a letter in pensive discrimination.
When I read a book, especially a large, fairly hefty book, I feel that I am inside something. I feel private. I feel that my interior self, the one I choose to keep out of the public light and its scrutiny, is at liberty to roam.
It never ceases to amaze me how complicated life can be and it is for that very reason that I prefer the astonishing simplicity of a book.
That is the beauty of the thing.
One cannot fail to feel the warmth and fiber of a book, its infinite variety of shape, and grain, and cloth. Text begins with texture. We can lift a perception into the world by scrawling it into the sand with a stick by the side of the ocean. But it is not the frenzied bowing of the violin and its intricate notes that we hear when we find deliverance in the stirring of pages. That requires a spine, and a block of paper.
Shake a thought until an idea falls out of it. Thought attracts thought and rolls around the sun. The tongue unrolls the word ‘accordion’ and an accordion unfolds making accordion sounds. All this can go into a book with the same felicitous fit as a willow delineating druids and shadows by a tumbling brook.
If you need to explain to someone why the direct rays of the sun feel better than the heat emanating from a steam radiator, or why the crackling gold of a campfire is more delicious to the skin than the heat coming from a baseboard heater or vent on the floor, then you will never convince that person of anything because that person is dead.
You get my point.
I am sympathetic to alligators but I do not want one with me on the bus.
I feel the same way about laptops. They eat books. They devour them. Suck them into a realm of pixels and electricity and binary digits. A ghostly realm of ephemeral passages, wisps of knowledge, gossip, rumor, chat, fleeting communications that glow without bone, shine without substance.
Could it be that the juggernaut of digital communication is more than a matter of novelty and convenience? Perhaps this is the most apt medium for a language drained of meaning. Politicians say one thing while campaigning, then, elected, do just the opposite. Pundits on TV make statements void of fact, or even reality. And nobody seems to mind. One hears one thing, sees another. There is often no correspondence between what is claimed, and what is actually experienced. The only real way to find if something is true, is to go there yourself. See it, hear it, feel it, taste it, smell it yourself. There will come a day when even Google lets you down.
One day I pulled a meaning out of a word I did not expect and it grew into an orchard of fruit, peaches and plums swollen with light, a larynx extending the granite of a wooded solitude.
But now I don’t remember what the word was.
It was in a book. I know that. And the book was full of words like drops of rain. And the streams had meanings and the eggnog was aloud and robins were alert to the worms in the dirt and the amber sweat on the handle of a paragraph was like the dry chrome of form bending in the light of the afternoon which slid down from the sky and became a chin of thought frisky as any abstraction high and sweet and smooth as the circulation of blood and a studio full of spinning excuses forged a crucial understanding of buffalo and a voyage took place in a web of words where veins of silver converged in a pool and the only noise was my mind squeezing the fruit of hypothetical absences.
Even if what is written is utterly silly once it’s in a book it’s there and you cannot get it out unless you burn the book. But even that won’t stop it. Because there will be more books. None of which will require a battery or an outlet or an account or a modem. But they will require fingers and hands and skin and a functioning brain. Blood. Thumbs. Hooks will do if your arms have been blown off in a war. Which sometimes happens.
There are people who like killing and people who don’t. I don’t know which group prefers reading books to burning books but it doesn’t really matter. Because if you begin generalizing about people you just get lost. Generalizations don’t belong in books. Or do they? Maybe a book is a pretty good place to put generalizations. If a generalization goes into a book it must be supported. It’s not like a conversation where any opinion can get floated and it won’t matter, even if you’re on television or the radio you can always deny what you said or say you’ve been misinterpreted. A generalization in a book will need an index and footnotes and an appendix and a pancreas and a stomach to digest it all. It’s all there in the anatomy of a book. Which is why it feels so good in the hands and yields so wonderfully to the fingers. You don’t have to mess with a cursor or crash or scroll anything down like you are possibly doing this minute.
It always pains me when, at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero hurls his book of magic into the sea. But I can see the necessity of it. Given the era in which Shakespeare lived, in which Christianity had so much sway, a time not unlike the one we are now in again, another slide into the dark ages with ignorant, superstitious people antagonistic toward blaspheming intellectuals and the laboratories and scalpels of science. Because creating storms and gorgeous palaces was a lot of power for a mortal. It is godlike.
To bring about the events that Prospero was able to control, a disturbing circumstance in which the imagination and external world are weirdly fused, so that what one speaks becomes reality, requires the special knowledge of books, which are the receptacles of long inquiry. Argument and exploration. Which makes books powerful devices of sedition. Ideas can topple kingdoms.
A book incubates. Its ideas develop slowly. It goes to print after a long gestation. But once it has arrived in the world, it is fixed and autonomous, subject only to the person who brings the words to life by reading them. One enters a charmed domain. Prospero’s world. “The isle,” says Caliban, “is full of noises. Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” It is a place where the laws of the physical universe are suspended. The spirit is exhilarated by the taste of the infinite.
This holds true for all books. Whatever controls are imposed on a book during its creation, by religion, by law, or by the body politic, will be fully evident to the reader, provided that the reader has learned the practice of keeping an open mind, and has learned to think critically. The outer world gives us sensation, but it is our mental life that arranges those sensations in patterns that make sense to us.
When we open a book, there is no intervening force. Whereas everything connected by electronic means is controlled by an outside source. Information is monitored, filtered, surveilled. Even, in the case of DynamicBooks, a subsidiary of MacMillan, to give “instructors the power to alter individual sentences and paragraphs without consulting the original authors or publisher.” How deeply sad that MacMillan, who has published poetry by Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley, W.B. Yeats and James Schuyler, has chosen to drop their pants, squat, and defecate on the written word.
You can delete sedition from a screen but you cannot delete sedition from a book.
Because somewhere anywhere it doesn’t matter where the sun will go on shining and the palomino will continue doing handsprings down the sidewalk until someone closes the book and pays for the coffee and gets up from their chair and begins walking. Walking where does not matter. But there will be comfort in the weight of the book, the feel of its spine, lode upon load in the leaves of its light.
End-note, by John Olson: You might be wondering why, if the author of this diatribe is so against digitalized media, is he presenting his argument on a blog? First, I love irony. Secondly, I am not altogether hostile to digitalized media. It gets information into the world very quickly. I respect it. I admire it. I salute it. But I do not love it. I’m just sayin’: there are major caveats that go along with this convenience. Thirdly, reality. Go into any coffehouse or airport or bus station and what are people most apt to be reading? Laptops. And it is you who I am trying hardest to reach.
“. . . a garden carried in the pocket.”
John Olson’s essay “Extreme Reading” was published here in the glade last June (click to go). Other essays published by Olson in 2009 were discussed and linked to in a post this past December (click to read, if you please).
Black Widow Press will publish Larynx Galaxy, an all new collection of Olson’s prose poems, in late summer. Olson’s The Nothing That Is, an autobiography written in the second person, is forthcoming from Ravenna Press.
John Olson is also the author of Backscatter: New and Selected Poems (Black Widow Press, 2008), and Souls of Wind (Quale Press, 2008); the latter’s a fiction in which Arthur Rimbaud and Billy the Kid meet up on the American frontier.
“. . . the weight of the book,
the feel of its spine,
lode upon load in the leaves of its light.”