This piece was intended to be a serious essay on the symbolism of books in fantasy. It may actually be a horror story. On the other hand it may be a critical examination of the nature of literary criticism. Then again it may be an exercise in intellectual narcissism. Who knows? Certainly not the author who is as confused as anyone.
The fiction, A Hero’s Death, introduces a fictitious book whose complexities are the object of the narrators obsession. Fictitious books of power, books that seize a persons mind are a common enough theme in fantasy. Such books are generally magical and are often grimoires. Some of these books such as Lovecraft’s Necronomicon are quite famous. The grimoire in Bellair’s Face In The Frost may be the most compellingly horrific of these works; the final scene in which it reads itself is quite fine. Such books need not be horrific, e.g., the book of spells in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S.Lewis.
Why books? Commercial fantasy mostly deals in magic rings and enchanted swords, i.e., in the most blatant of symbolism. One puts one’s finger in a magic ring and something marvelous happens. Indeed. What we have here is mana, the imagery of power. Artifacts do not have power in their own right; they are dead things. Power is endowed on objects by humans; it is the image within the human mind that is the source of power. The power of rings and swords is easy to understand, but why books? What is in the image of the book that endows it with power?
It is good to hear from you again. You enquire whether I meant A Hero’s Death as a literary puzzle. Of course not. As you note the theme is quite simple. The reflections and reverberations may be a trifle confusing but they are integral to the nature of the work. I am gratified that you enjoyed it; apparently the keenness of wit of your noble ancestor has been passed on to the present generation, albeit transferred from the domain of the nautical to the domain of the literary. You will be amused to know that a copy fell into the hands of one of those poseurs who call themselves literary critics and trying to comprehend it nearly finished him off. The poor chap puzzled over it for years and never could make head nor tail of it.
The Spivak translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology has neither a bibliography nor an index. What statements are implicitly being made here about the nature of the book?
Of course not. The questions on the final are not about the texts that they studied or about the lectures. They are the questions that the students should have asked themselves during the course. I am not training regurgitators; I am teaching students how to think about literature.
Howard Lippincott’s article, The Image of the Book, which purports to analyze the book as an icon of enchantment entirely omits reference to the Bible or even any other sacred work. God may indeed be dead in the nether reaches of Academia but I assure you that He is still quite alive in our culture. The Bible is still the Book; all other works are but books. The shadow it casts over the corpus of literature is both long and deep.
Father William Brown
First woman: Have you ever noticed that men read non-fiction and women read fiction.
Second woman: I know what you mean. You can’t get Howard to touch a novel. If I go a week without reading a good novel I get to the point where I’ll read ANYTHING as long as it has a story in it.
First woman: Except science fiction.
Second woman: That doesn’t count. Howard LOVES science fiction.
NC: Note to self. This has possibilities.
In the era of the Grammarians classical scholarship had a remarkable prestige. The scholar had, in the minds of the semi-educated laity, the image of a half-understood magician and the works that he studied had the gloss of the grimoire. In part this reputation was deserved for the resurrected classical literature did in fact represent real power of the worldly kind.
We have seen that in the critical review that, when a text is properly deconstructed, the review is situated in the trace so that the original text vanishes entirely. We may then reasonably ask “What role does the original text have in the review?” The answer is “It has no apparent role.” In the critical review the original work is the trace of the review and, as such, is not visible in the text of the review. Within the text of the review the review is originary. The text that plays the role of being deconstructed within the review is not and should not be the original text; rather it is a rewriting of the trace which serves as a mirror reflecting the trace. As such it need not have any structural relationship to the original text; indeed it is usually preferable to invent the text to be deconstructed to suit the needs of the review.
Bloom (The Lucifer Principle) emphasizes endorphins as natural opiates. Dunbar (Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language) emphasizes endorphin release in song and dance. Does reading work the same way? Would explain read-trance. Must check effect of textual regularities on endorphin release in chronic readers.
It is often claimed that technology is ethically neutral, that whether it is used for good or evil is a decision made by people. This claim is misleading. It is in the nature of people to misuse technology. Time and again we see that the first use of a new technology is for destruction and for power over people. There is a famous scene in 1984 when O’Brien tells Smith that the future is a boot stomping a face, forever. We are horrified because such a thing is possible – people are like that – and because there is a part of us, no matter how we deny it, that wants to wear that boot and stomp that face. If ever we have a thorough understanding of the human mind you may be sure that its first use will not be to cure the sick. No, the first use will be for the sheer exercise of power – for power and not for profit. Profit comes later. As for good, it comes last or not at all. So it is with all technology; the first thing its inventors do with it is to play with it destructively like small boys tearing wings off of flies.
Unlike the magic rings and the enchanted swords, the book delivers on its promise. Rings and swords are but symbols; the book enchants. It not only portrays enchantment, it can enchant us. What reader has not experienced the trance of the read, has not found themselves having no consciousness of anything except a timeless duration of reading? Books have power. The power of real books, however, can be broken. Suppose, however, there were a book whose enchantment could not be broken, a book whose compulsion is so certain that opening it is a sure surrender. Such a thing can be imagined. It is the fear of and the desire for such a potential enchantment that motivates the creation of the fictional book of power.
Dinosaur enthusiasts, myself included, were delighted to see John Horner’s latest book, Dinosaur Lives. Horner has a certain amount of public fame as the paleontologist advisor for Jurassic Park and Lost World. Among the cognoscenti he is known for his epochal finds. The book is good; however I was shocked to see that it had neither a bibliography nor an index. One expects better from a work on a scientific subject.
I must protest this style of speaking of books as texts. They are works, artifacts created in a collaboration between authors, editors, publishers, artists, printers and book-binders. The text in a book is only part of what the book is. These literary pimps who talk of texts are very clear about what they want to do. They want to dehumanize books, strip away everything including the author from the work, so that they can play their perverted literary games in a field of empty symbols.
Montage: The style of the montage is like a staccato drum beat. Percussion has its power but the book needs its narrative as melody too. How best to combine both?
I have on my desk two books, The Prehistory of the Mind, and Barchester Towers. The first is a work of popular science, the second is a novel. They are both books and both are written in the English language. They have little in common beyond that.
The focus of the first is utilitarian. It is a refined, multi dimensional instrument for communicating knowledge. It has an extensive bibliography, extensive notes, and an extensive index. Arguments are presented with the aid of charts, diagrams, and pictures. Fonts and white space are used to present information heirarchically. Narrative and metaphor are used within the text to bring the presentation alive. It is a typical serious non-fiction work.
The second book is a novel. There are no notes, no references, no index. There are water-color illustrations; they are not present to convey information. There are chapters but there are no essential discontinuities in the flow of the narrative. It is a typical work of fiction.
Each style represents the evolution of the book as an instrument of a particular mode of functionality. In one access to information is King; in the other the telling of a story is King. Today we quite often see works of fiction written in the style of the serious work of non-fiction. Why is that?
The “scholarly” style carries the gloss of factuality; it comes packaged with a provenance bearing little certificates attesting to the identity and truthfulness of the statements within it. This gloss is only a gloss though; the certificates may all be forgeries. Why would the writer of fiction don this mask, this similitude of factuality? Why? Because truth itself is a fiction and factuality is but another mode of narrative. The mask may be donned because it is no longer a mask; it is a familiar face well known in our culture.
The lover of books who collects them as the works of art that they are knows that a book is not just a collection of words and it is not just a bit of paper and leather. A collectors book, one that was made for the true lover of books, is a collaboration of the highest order between many artists. The author has his artistry; the illustrator has his; the printer has his. Above all the book designer has the responsibility for weaving these separate elements into one magnificent whole. Even the publisher has his part, for it is the publisher who says yea or nay, the publisher who must decide, who must have the desire to publish the very best.
The heydey of the truly collectible book was the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Works before then, despite some shining points, are more of bibliographic and scholarly interest. The art of making books had not been truly refined. What has happened since then is simply dreadful. Books today are created for a generation weaned on plastic and television.
If there is a work which is compelling by the very nature of its complexity, by the very wealth of its literary variety, it surely is not the fictitious A Hero’s Death but rather it is to be found in the works of James Joyce. It is Joyce who is the acknowledged master. If Joyce does not enrapture to the point of compulsion than no one can. And, for all his charms and all his subtleties, he does not.
The force of enchantment is not to be found in complexity; it is found in “the good read”, the narrative that demands our surrender and entices it so that we are swept up. It is the primitive that enchants; it is the complex that satisfies.
You will be pleased to know that I am working on a promising new book. You will enjoy it.
This page was last updated July 19, 1997.
Copyright © 1997 by Richard Harter