People or Books


There’s this classic Twilight Zone episode. Maybe you’ve seen it. A bibliophile finally has enough time to read, only at the cost of all other life and civilization itself. As fellow bibliophiles, we can have the tendency to focus on the final tragic moment when he loses his only way to read even though surrounded by books without any distraction.

But I think the real tragedy would be to become the person who desires books free of any human entanglement. Doing so means ignoring the nature of books and where they come from. No book is possible without the person who writes or the person who reads. Since, as R. A. Smith reminds us, every writer is also a reader, each book emerges from a tradition of literary interaction among numerous past generations.

I think we love books because this is true. We love stories because being a storyteller is a unique aspect of personhood. Being a bibliophile and a misanthrope is impossible. Each identity restricts the other.

In Meetings, a book of “autobiographical fragments,” the philosopher, Martin Buber (we’ve looked at his thought together before here and here), gets to the heart of whether we should choose people or books:

Here is an infallible test. Imagine yourself in a situation where you are alone, wholly alone on earth, and you are offered one of the two, books or men. I often hear men prizing their solitude but that is only because there are still men somewhere on earth even though in the far distance. I knew nothing of books when I came forth from the womb of my mother, and I shall die without books, with another human hand in my own. I do, indeed, close my door at times and surrender myself to a book, but only because I can open the door again and see a human being looking at me.

Even if the tragic bibliophile had kept his glasses, he would learn to regret his early excitement at a world devoid of people. Each book would be a consolation at first because of its human origin. But eventually, the authorial voice in his head would be a reminder of the living voices that had been lost. He would wish for one more moment with his poetry-burning wife over a thousand books of poetry. We cherish the voices of poets, the presence of novelists, because we cherish other persons.

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