Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Books vs. Religion and the Internet

Cicero said, and this is a paraphrase, that books are the soul of a room. Books add something essential to a setting that is lacking in their absence. The ability of a collection of bound and printed pages to contribute so greatly to a room’s makeup is astounding. Books serve this purpose as well as they educate, illuminate and entertain. That being the case, they deserve our respect. How many of us are so informative, entertaining or add anything like soul to a room?

A room of books is to many (and I count myself among this crowd) similar to a church, synagogue, mosque or any other place of worship. There is little difference really. Some worship gods and myths and traditions, some worship ideas and stories in the same way. After all, religions are really just collections of stories, right?

I went to house recently, a large house in a small town. The area was surrounded by bait shops, gun stores and fast food. At the risk of seeming snobbish, it depressed me. What made it worse was the interior of the house. Not a book to be found, not even a newspaper. I can’t imagine such a way of life. It’s not like I read every minute of every day. There’s TV and the black hole internet and other such albatrosses we let into our lives, but books will always hold more importance for me. I like them. I like reading them and, more so, I like buying them. I’m a sick consumer and it’s getting worse with every passing year.

I went book shopping today. I had some excess Xmas money to burn and a few gift certificates. I nearly bought Salman Rushdie’s latest collection of essays, Step Across This Line for $17, paperback. I read a few of the essays and opted for something else, thinking I’d find it again and already had 3 other Rushdie books at home waiting to be read. Two bookstores later, I found a used copy of Rushdie’s book for $5.75, hardback without even a dent in the spine. You see how I saved money? It pays to shop around.

By the way, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the book that made him a household name and the target of the more extreme Muslims, stands as a frightening example of the power of books. Or it would if anyone read the fucking thing. I wonder if the Ayatollah read Rushdie’s book. I wonder if the terrorists who killed Rushdie’s Japanese translator read the book. I doubt it. Maybe it is not so much a testament to the power of literature as it is a case against religious zealotry. Books prompt thought and discussion; the inflexibility of dogmatic belief only knows how to censor and destroy. Books, 1; Religion, 0.

The Bible is taught as a piece of literature, even in a Christian university like my old stomping grounds, DePaul. Looking at religious texts as pieces of literature is interesting and might make people appreciate them more than they do as the basis for their faith. I was made to go to church and read some of the Bible. I didn’t like it or believe a word of what I read. Thinking of it as I do the Greek myths made me see something in it that I missed when it was force fed to me. The point? Reading these texts is more fun when you are allowed to see them as stories and lessons, not rigid moral codes and road maps to heaven. But I digress.

Why is it important to have so many damned books? Why not? Aside from giving my room soul, they make me happy. Scores of women were collecting Beanie Babies a few years ago. Call me crazy but I think my obsession is a bit healthier than theirs. I am building a personal library still, as I have been for over a decade and will continue to do so until my dying day. When the end comes I will be able to see each book as a representation of a certain time in my life. I can tell you where I got most of them. They sit like memories on my shelves and bring back interesting times, good and bad. They are a connection to the past and to the future, as many are waiting anxiously to be read, promising immeasurable pleasures someday off in the distance. They are an investment. When the net implodes and TV becomes too crowded with crime procedurals (the endless parade of insipid Law & Order shows) and the celebration of bimbos who skate through life being vacuous and petty (The Simple Life) I will always have the books to go back to. And they don’t even need to be plugged in. Instead, they ask that you plug yourself into them.

Will the internet replace books? Nope. Never going happen. No way in hell. Why not? Because there are too many of us out there who value the printed page and think that literature should take up space. Books have weight; the web is just images and illusions. I don’t judge every book by its size but I like them to be tangible, to have a feel and a smell and to look nice. Aesthetics are important and computers offer little of that, certainly not the way books do. The ability to download an article or an excerpt is amazing, and I employ this ability often, but the internet and the computer and the vast resources of information exist to support the book, not usurp it. Be this as it may, I suppose a day may come when I feel as antiquated as the volumes that line my walls and crowd me in my tiny room. I won’t mind so long as it is a well-lit and quiet room that will, no doubt, have tremendous soul.