Thursday, November 17, 2005

What is the value of books?

I was glancing through my recent copy of Entertainment Weekly and found an inset about movie adaptions of various books. The piece's title was "Reel Lit: See the Movies or Hit the Books?" and featured four books/movies: Jarhead, Bee Season, Shopgirl, and Derailed. In each case, and for disparate reasons, the reviewer gave the nod to the book over the movie.

Now, I recognize that this is a debate perennial since the advent of film. The relative merits of film versions over book originals has filled the gullets of unnumbered, unnamed, unfettered film students to the point that you wonder if the message is getting across -- the book is almost always better. As a matter of point, I can think of only one book which fell short of the movie. That book was Stephen King's The Shining. Stanley Kubrick's film literally creeped me out, where King's book literarily didn't. Kubrick's film still creeps me out every time I see it. King's book failed to have the same effect, although I must confess to having read it after being exposed to Kubrick's vision. I have many times gone back to source material after seeing movie versions and have always found the book superior, so take that for what it's worth.

In our own time, we have many people forecasting the death of the book. Even in a time when a certain British boy-wizard can post amazing sales, it becomes more evident that as a culture we are becoming generally less literate. When I speak of literacy, I am not referring merely to the power of translated squiggly cuneform symbols. Literacy is knowledge and appreciation of the canon of one's own cultural product. It is the power to smile at the mere mention of a book for you understand why that book, that tale, mattered in the larger story of man. It was telling that as I browsed the yearbook of a Oklahoma middle school (and forget asking which one, because "I'll never tell") the students were asked who was their favorite actor/actress, movie, and tv show. No one was asked what ranked as their favorite book, magazine, or literary figure. If this oversight comes from the students, that has one set of meanings. If this oversight comes from the teacher-supervisor of the yearbook, that is truly problematic, at least in appearance.

Which brings me back to the question I started from: What is the value of books? Books are the necessary memory and transmission of that which is truly human. Only within the covers of a book can one experience the nearness intimacy of true interpersonal exchanges. As you read non-fiction, you must listen and consider what the argument the author is presenting. As you do this, you become engaged in the debate. It cannot merely wash past you as a series of immaterial, insubstantial images; rather, the author and the reader engage in a dialogue. You may walk away changed for the better. You may fling the book across the room in a fit of pique. Either way, you got something that was completely unexpected in the process.

Again, look to a classic work of fiction or even the best seller. There is a moment of sharing across the ebony lines of print. You are the director, the actor, the viewer, the appreciative mind who must cast every character in flesh and blood. And standing in the background of the mental stage is the author, the author who first met these people in his psychic playground. You have continued to breathe life into those who didn't first belong to you. And those new people teach, they direct, they give us the things we need.

Lastly, only a book can really make you think. A movie unfortunately is too easily dismissed as phantom, as a dream one wakes from. The book's solidity allows the reader to set it down. The movie runs on and on to its conclusion. Yes, I can pause a DVD but it still isn't the same. The book invites me to go back, to re-tread the same pages over, to savor. From the silence of salient savoring, the illuminintive moment is born. The movie wants you to get to the end. It fairly screams "Have I got more to show you!" and grasping at your wrist like an impetuous child, drags you away from the thing you wanted to think about.

If you want to know where all this comes from, you can blame Ray Bradbury. In eighth grade, Ms. Devoe made us read Fahreinheit 451, a story about a totalitarian future in which books are burned by firemen. In the book, one fireman recognizes the wrong being perpetrated and eventually escapes this world and joins the ranks of refugees from this bookless sphere. Each of the refugees takes it upon themselves to memorize one book; they literally become the book in the hopes that one day the book can be restored to life and to reality on page. As an impressionable eighth grader, that truly hit me. Each of us could become the book we read for if the book leads us deeper into reality, through the processes of reason, then we find that the book has become integrated into our world. It becomes a new colored piece in the lead glass collage of stained glass through which all of us see the world.

So here's the deal. Each Friday, I will try to have a new book to recommend to our readers. Each review will have a brief synopsis and a brief commentary on why I think it is important to read. However, unlike the recently defunct book club, there will be no questions, no discussion, no obligation. It will be your job to figure out what to do with that book.

UPDATE: Not to say I told you so, but permit this glowing review of the latest Harry Potter movie further demonstrate my point.

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