On the Spiritual Lives of Books

P.B. Wombat

Issue 42 * Spring 2020

As much ink as gets spilt discussing what we think of books—from the Times Literary Supplement to the vast acreage of literary criticism to these "listicles" the kids keep tweeting about—I believe we have sufficiently covered what we think of books. As I sit by my cozy fire and look over my scotch to the leather-bound expanses beyond, I consider that perhaps the next step is to ask what, exactly, all of these books think of us. What I am proposing here, though, is less the definitive measure of such than the speculations of an aged man, speculations that, perhaps, the younger and more energetic may find it worthwhile to pursue.

That well-thumbed copy of Bleak House, for example—what cases must it be contemplating in its never-attainable future? Does its serpentine plot replay every time I pick it up? For the book, is the plot a toil or a fulfillment—or, as is the case with most of us—a little bit of both? Is To the Lighthouse an esoteric intellectual to Bleak House's contemplative litigator? For that matter, is the repair manual for my Morgan Plus Four, stuck unceremoniously atop the two aforementioned titles, my categorization system long since broken down, a stalwart workman, now tired from his mostly futile labors over the years, permanently frayed with having been thrown into trunks or stashed beneath seats, deeply oil-stained, unable, now, to deny its authenticity? What loneliness it must now feel, as the car itself rots in the garage, its restoration long neglected.

But this is mere speculation, as, I suppose, it must be. Phillip Goff has proposed recently that being alive is a matter of complexity, that the more complex, the more "alive" you are. If so, Bleak House would be as alive as To the Lighthouse, only differently so, as different as, say, a llama and a giraffe, but, like them, showing similar lineage to the studied eye. The Little Prince, my copy having been purchased to read along with my grandson, a project of much delay and distraction, finally completed over Skype, when he was ten, may not rise to the higher level of mammals in complexity, but it seems to lead a deep life all on its own—or maybe a broader one, an itinerant bird whose presence you note in the garden once a year and whose migration patterns, you later read, range all the way from Africa to your locale as the seasons change.

But then, one must also ask, what of those books overtly spiritual? A volume of Richard Crashaw, or George Herbert, its soul split between the earthly and the saintly, looking down on my safe life, my aged wife, and scoffs a bit, yet looks heavenward with awe, and maybe with no small part of shame. And what of Bunyan, C.S. Lewis, of the Bible itself? I knock the ash from my pipe and look on, worrying about them worrying about me.

I see no problem with The Screwtape Letters or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe knowing the deep mysteries of my ancient King James or having much truck with the seeming contradictions between its leather bindings. Bunyan, though, looks on worshipfully, perhaps unthinkingly, its story the same no matter the questions whispered around it. And what of The Book itself? I prefer the poetry of James, but have looked, of course, into other translations. James, it has been said, gets a lot wrong, as eloquence is, perhaps, a distortion. However, consider all of the voices inside! The holy chatter must seem like absolute madness compared to the single-voiced clarity of Pilgrim's Progress: the lamentations of the prophets versus Solomon's sultry songs, the solemnity of the Pentateuch versus the warmth of the gospels. And here the books' spiritual lives may come to resemble ours, as the faithful have long attempted to smooth over the rough spots of any holy writ, have always preferred the easiest access through the rocky path of right living.

I'll admit a soft spot in my heart for Wharton, and I would like to think that her works, too, would look kindly upon me. Though we started on different sides of it, we both have one foot on either side of the Atlantic, the same jaundiced eye for the petty cruelties of the finer classes and, perhaps, a bit of guilt at being among them. Yet aside from them, those cruelties, what do readers not associated with the Oxford or the Ivy set even know about the people critiqued therein? As a scholar, it is my job to worry about this matter, but I suppose my copy of The Age of Innocence would laugh a little at the irony and carry on. This is proper, and only for those classes does the word "proper" mean just now what it has always meant and what it always shall. I imagine this volume meeting, regularly, for tea with Portrait of a Lady, the works of Wharton and James wondering about the whereabouts and doings of the writings of Waugh.

I shall leave the works of Waugh aside with Forrester; their souls change only as a season might, to note the tone any library takes on as soon as Shakespeare enters. We cannot disregard The Bard's works' souls; for all their ubiquity, to see them in ours is to see the whole spectrum of what a mind can be. So perhaps we ought to speak of souls in the same fairness as we speak of these works. Our mistake in this explanation is to conflate the soul of the work with the soul of the author, though it has become commonplace to reduce all art to biography. Hamlet, to get right to it, must not feel its holiness, the sacred position to which we have raised it. It is, by turns, tortured, hilarious, angry, absurd, and inconsistent. We glorify it for its language, its existential turns, but to love it is to know its flaws, the central one being the justification of the young prince's inaction, which is neither explained with satisfaction nor becoming of the man and role. We may relate to the prince, but we admire him at our peril.

And so we see here how our souls and the souls of books are in communication, and why we pity those who do not read: my own disappointment at where that bookmark stays in War and Peace, also at the death of a prince, is commented upon by the book's own judgment and, agreeably, at its incredible patience. I know the Bolkonskys and the Bezukhovs will still be there when I return. The same may be said of any book, but some books seem to change faster than others. It is amazing how much wiser Huck Finn becomes in the short years between reading it at 17 and at 22. This is universal, if the reader is awake at all, and so few are, these days. Tolstoy's works move at a more stately pace, but they will move for a longer time.

The souls of these books, I here contend, are, like all souls, eternal. Antigone's hamartia is as fresh today as the day it debuted. The neglect of these souls today does not diminish them; it diminishes us.