The Secret Life of Books
Why They Mean More Than Words
by Tom Mole
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson
2019, Hardcover, 239 pages
Reviewed by Michael Pastore
“I cannot live without books.”
Thomas Jefferson’s five fine words capture our spirit of devotion to the printed word. Bibliophiles love books (and essays) about the mysteries, the dangers, and the delights of books and reading.
Many works on this theme have been written; the excellent ones are rare. My favorites? Reading (Chapter 3 in Walden, by Henry David Thoreau); On Reading (by Marcel Proust); Casanova Was A Booklover (by John Maxwell Hamilton); On Books and Reading (by Arthur Schopenhauer); What is a Classic? (by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve); Of Kings’ Treasuries (from Sesame and Lilies, by John Ruskin); A History of Reading (by Alberto Manguel); The Book on the Bookshelf (by Henry Petroski); and The Books in My Life (by Henry Miller, and another with the same title by Colin Wilson). Notable fiction gracing this subject includes Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s novel whose monster anti-hero is a discriminating reader of the classics; and two stories: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Spinoza of Market Street; and Anton Chekhov’s surprise-ending tale, The Bet.
The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words has earned a place on my bookshelf labeled: The World’s Best Books About Books. What’s unique about this one is its focus on the physical books themselves, and the fascinating ecosystem that exists between books and everyone and everything around them.
The Secret Life of Books contains 8 chapters, and a meditative coda about the quest for the perfect bookcase that would organize all the author’s treasured volumes. Woven between these chapters are three interludes explaining books-in-paintings by Caravaggio (St. Jerome), Van Gogh (Still Life With Bible), and (probably) Belcamp (Great Picture). The chapter titles and subtitles reveal the richness and complexity of the book’s ideas and themes:
1. BOOK/BOOK — The things we do to books and the things they do to us.
2. BOOK/THING — How books function as objects circulating among other objects.
3. BOOK/SELF — How books shape our identities and signal them to others.
4. BOOK/RELATIONSHIP — How books form our relationships with other people.
5. BOOK/LIFE — How books get woven into our lives, from childhood to old age (and beyond).
6. BOOK/WORLD — How books shape institutions, societies and nations.
7. BOOK/TECHNOLOGY — How books respond to changes in technology.
8. BOOK/FUTURE — What changes when books change?
Pearls of interestingness can be found in every chapter. In BOOK/BOOK (pp. 7-8), Mole writes:
“The relationship between the ignorable material form of a book and its valuable content might remind us of another familiar relationship: that between body and soul. The words in the book are to its material form as the immortal soul is to the mortal body.”
Later in BOOK/LIFE (p.116): “You have to be careful when giving books, though. If you choose a title that leaves the recipient cold, you risk revealing how little you understand their tastes. And in China, some older people think books are unlucky gifts, because the word for ‘book’ sounds the same as the word for ‘lose’. But for most people, books make good presents.”
And in BOOK/WORLD, one of many fun facts (p.135): “The Library of Congress in Washington DC contains 167 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. It adds around 12,000 items to its collections each working day.”
Chapter 7, BOOK/TECHNOLOGY — about books and new reading technology — is a theme that has captured my attention since the beginning of the ebook revolution — which started in 1971 with Project Gutenberg (thank you, Michael Hart). For decades the revolution crawled tortoisely until the November 2007 portentous talk by Jeff Bezos. Ebooks gained ground with the creation of the Internet Archive and Open Library; gripped us with suspense amidst the ebook format battle (all effectively surrending to the latest Kindle format) and the war between hardware reading devices (we know who won that one); and then famously blew up around the controversy of Google Books attempting the digitization of everything in print.
One of my favorite sections of this chapter contains Mole’s words about audiobooks — aka “talking books” or “recorded books” — and their connection (similarities vs. differences) with the reading experience of paper books. “Increasingly”, writes Mole (p. 175), “audiobooks started to colonise those moments when people could squeeze in some listening time, even if they couldn’t read a paper book — not just while commuting, but while vacuuming, cooking or working out.”
I once read Emerson describe the difference between his written essays, and the lectures he gave based on these essays. Because the on-paper essay can easily be read again if something is unclear or abstruse, Emerson rewrote the lectures to contain more repetition and rhetorical techniques for greater listener comprehension and retention. Today, because it is now so easy to replay and rehear any part of an audiobook, even this subtle point by Emerson might be unnecessary.
But there still remains the all-important difference about being-read-to versus reading-by-oneself. When we read, in fiction especially, our imaginations expand as we invent the way each character sounds. The audiobook does this for us, arguably with great skill by the narrator. This situation — Do we prefer to hear our own personal inner voice, or the sound of a skilled voice actor? — replicates another recurring question in ereading: Who should choose the fonts: the person reading the ebook, or a book designer skilled in typography?
Thus, the delivery method, the technology that powers reading, does make small but important differences. In the end I have become the ideal book buyer, because I want every format of every book: paper books for the unmatchable pleasure of turning pages, writing in the book, and placing books into the hands friends; ebooks for searching, highlighting, and text-to-speech apps that read aloud. And whenever the production is marvelous — as in the Richard Harris reading of The Prophet (poetic prose passages by Kahlil Gibran), I will also buy the version on a CD or some form of audiobook.
Writing about books, Henry Miller’s motto was “They were alive and they spoke to me.”
Books enhance our lives because, metaphorically speaking, books themselves have a life. And now, thanks to this illuminating work by Tom Mole, we understand that paper books have another life, a secret life, a life that deepens our personal lives, and calms some chaos in our swiftly-changing culture. The Secret Life of Books is enchanting as it reassuringly persuades us that the future of paper books will be long, unpredictable, and bright.
Michael Pastore — the Publisher/Editor of BookLovers Review and its parent portal, Zorba Media — lives in Ithaca, New York, with no cats and 10,000 books.