Sometimes at family gatherings, I am mocked for the one time when, as a child, I was asked the question ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’ and I answered, ‘A Librarian.’
It has always seemed odd to me that this should be so humourous. Even then as a young boy, I saw the value of books; not merely as something to ‘use’ or ‘consume’ but as something magic, something sacred. To this day, few things make me cringe more than the destruction or censorship of books. More-so than other forms of media, books represent not the consumption of information, but a dialogue — with some other time, some other place, some human experience that was not my own; the memetic evolution of my consciousness in intercourse with the experience of another, expressed as prose or poetry, as fact or fiction.
Just as biological systems do not perfectly encode and decode genetic information, so it is with art, there is no perfect interpretation of a text and anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool. A book is like RNA, a facsimile, from which you can read and understand the essence of where it came from, without ever having seen its source, often by filling in the gaps with your own experience — introducing mutations to the original idea which become your own, which become creativity. It is in this imperfect reproduction that we obtain value in the re-reading of important books in different times in our lives.
Books alter consciousness. How they alter your consciousness depends on which ones you decide to read. Most alter it for the better, by encouraging you to empathise, to think, to introspect.
Fiction lets us see things from the perspective of another, their commonalities and differences with us. Non-fiction gives us the wisdom of years of research. Each genre brings with it some different kind of reflection, some different mirror to see different aspects of the life in which we are bound, of nature and the lives of others.
Not all books are good, some are the blatant propaganda of charlatans — the encoding of cancerous memes — but these can be identified by the use of aggressive salesmanship to sell you on their ideas rather than by actual content or through the use of deliberately mystifying and obfuscating prose — to let you project onto them whatever will make you fulfil their agenda. Learning to identify such books and be immune to their seduction is a difficult task, but it is possible mostly by having a life outside the world of books too, and by discourse with critical friends who will challenge your cosy preconceptions. (The the currently popular idea that friends are the people you agree with is a deeply regressive antiquation, but that deserves its own article.)
What gives books this sacrality that I so worshipped as a child is not merely this immense power, but also the fact that books, unlike newspaper articles or online blogs, are enduring records designed with posterity in mind. Unlike this blog, which will sooner or later (probably sooner) fade into obscurity and will doubtlessly be clumsy in places, a book is designed to be reproduced, to be replicated and inherited. My love of books came from the reading of history books, which were often hand-me-downs from my grandparents. I did not ‘use’ these books, as they are still there on my bookshelf to be read by myself or other people in the future. They are not products to consume, but records which I have inherited from my forefathers, over which I possess custody, until they are given to someone else. More-so than money or Jewels, it is these records which through which others live in me, and I will live on in others — both in my writing, and in my curation of the works of others.
To look after books, be they ones you own, or those which you have on loan from the library, is not merely to have obtained a piece of media to consume, but to have in your hands a record of somebody else’s life, it is their memorial, their headstone. Even if they aren’t dead yet, that is a record of a human consciousness. Something worthy of respect and reverence.
I’m generally of the view that it is hard to judge a person as being wholly good or evil, as all of us are a little bit of both, but I think that what determines the capacity to do good, is the willingness to see what others see — the openness to their experience, even should we disagree with it. To have a respect for literature is no guarantee of good character (After all, I hear Putin is fairly well read), but a disrespect of literature indicates an unwillingness to empathise and thus an unwillingness to improve oneself morally.
A respect for literature is no guarantee of good character, but it does indicate the capacity for positive change. As such, to be a custodian of books, a Librarian, is to do work which makes possible the future improvement of mankind, and should not be considered a peculiar aspiration for a child to have.