I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life. —Kanye West, promoting his book “Thank You and You’re Welcome.”
I suppose the easiest response to Kanye’s narcissistic cynicism is just to say I’m not big on reading books written by people that don’t read books. Since he’s taken the trouble of writing one, or probably of paying someone else who has read the odd tome to write one that he then can pimp, we have to assume he thinks his book has some value – and evidently value in excess of the accumulated knowledge of human civilization stuffed away in all those unscoured pages that he eschews. Maybe if he’d managed even a cursory perusal of, say, Emily Post, the whole unfortunate Taylor Swift incident might have been avoided. But I do wonder sometimes what we are losing as we lose our societal taste for books.
I’ve got at least a few thousand books cluttering up the place, and I was raised in a house where you couldn’t turn around without tripping over a book. When I saw the Kanye quote this morning, I flashed back to some of the languid afternoons I spent as a child flipping through the books my Dad had larded the homestead with. He wasn’t the fiction reader I am – though he certainly read his share. Lots of history laying about. We had something called the Atlas of Western Civilization. To call it a coffee table book is more descriptive than usual – slap some legs on the sucker and it would have been a coffee table – it was the kind of book that made you remember to lift with your legs. It was full of timelines and pictures and stories and maps. I used to flip through it for hours. Encyclopedia, of course, several dictionaries, Jane’s Fighting Ships, The US Army Manual of Dermatology – still remember a picture of a pair of gloved hands holding up a severed syphilitic scrotum that looked like something that had been left in the bottom of the vegetable drawer for about a year and a half. That picture did more to engender a healthy fear of STDs than any moralizing from the religious right ever could.
I spent countless hours adrift in the intoxicating trivia of World Book, the entomological ecstasy of the OED, even the swollen boyish marshal mania of Jane’s Fighting Ships — many of these occasions unplanned meanderings begun with the simple purpose of looking up something. A discrete mission, but one that mandated the manual crossing of paper — and that all too often lead to these blessed wanderings, lost in the accumulated trackless waste of facts, a de Vaca set out in search of gold and soon enslaved, adrift, cut off.
As many books as I have in the house, these reference dinosaurs are few. My children grew up with their Encartas and Wikipedia and search engines. In need of facts, they step like Captain Kirk into laser-guided transporter beams that deposit them exactly on the topics they seek. No waste, but no wonder. No chance to happen upon peculiar bits of information that beckon from an adjacent page like the hint of a lost temple through the fog of type. Theirs is a sterile city of knowledge, all the streets swept clean, all the cab drivers polite and informed, no chance of wandering into a bad neighborhood where rude data is piled unsorted in the streets and contrary points of view snap at your heels like pit bulls tethered at the end of fraying clotheslines.
And I am thankful for these automated options — when pressed by deadlines and needing just that one final bit to put stop to some project they are like a librarian on Dexedrine. But the map of my own mind is replete with forests grown from the humus of fallen facts, the rotting waste of pointless knowledge not reaped, not sown, but whose purposeless accumulation has laid the imaginative soil from which springs the most wondrous and odd flowers. What, I wonder, will grow from the concrete of minds never dirtied up by need to wander in search through books?