The Word Become Flesh: The Feel of a Good Book

Reading

I remember books. Not just texts, but books—the look of ink on paper, the feel of pages, the art on covers, the cracks in spines. I remember the first Norton Critical Edition I read—“The Sound and the Fury”—with its acid-free paper, typeset in Electra, and a picture of Faulkner’s home on the front. I remember reading “Jane Eyre” for the first time in a beat-up used paperback pocket edition. Its wood-pulp pages were so old and yellowed that they kept falling out the further I read. By the time Jane married Mr. Rochester, I was left with a stack of leaves between two covers. I remember my childhood Bible, my Dr. Seuss omnibus, the small hardcover novelization of Peter Pan my mom brought me back from England. I remember the scriptural heft of the deckle-edged, double-volume Robert Fagles translation of the Homeric epics; the seriousness and calmness of the bleached, wide-margined paper of Isaiah Berlin’s “Four Essays on Liberty;” the spacing of the lines, set in sweet Adobe Garamond, of the “Harry Potter” books. I remember things that weren’t technically books at all: the copy paper on which I printed out and read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the very first time, the Sony Reader screen on which I just finished “Sense and Sensibility.”

Among people who read lots of literature—be it verse or prose, fiction or fact—there are two loose but very real camps. The first consists of people for whom the book provides a vehicle for the text. The physical characteristics of this vehicle do not matter. It may be hardcover or paperback, typeset in any font, printed on grey paper or cream, used or new—they could care less, as long as they have the text, legible and reliable. These are the dualists, believing in the separability of the book and the text, the body and the mind.

The second camp, as you might suspect, are the monists, who insist that the book and the text are inextricably bound together. These are the readers who, before they buy a book, check the acidity of its paper; readers who scour the notes on typeface at the back of a novel, who have favorite dust jackets and layouts and spines. They are so picky because, for them, the physical reading experience affects the meaning of the text itself. Typefaces impart gravity or ease; margins impart degrees of focus. Cover images affect the attitude you bring to a text. Even the color and feeling of the endpapers flavor the experience.

The dualists generally think the monists are capricious and unfocused—batters who can’t hit the ball because they’re preoccupied with the feel of the bat. The monists think the dualists are insensitive louts who are blind to an entire world rich with sensations and emotions. The dualists are ascetics, disciplined, attentive to the word in its spiritual purity; the monists are aesthetes, sensualists, consumed with the mystery of the incarnation and the many sacraments built up around it. Dualists shake your hand; monists hug you.

I am a monist through and through. For me, the form of a book has always impacted the meaning of the text, from children’s books on up. Books cue certain interactions and shun others. Some books wear suits and some wear jeans; some have oily hands, and some smell oddly of cigarettes, cats, and spring rain. These are superficialities, but integral superficialities, in the same way that one’s hair or height is integral. One mind in a different body would no longer be the same person, taken as a whole. The same text in two different books is not the same experience.

Reading, consequently, is a deeply corporeal experience, as much as eating or seeing or having a cold. It doesn’t take place merely in the arena of the mind, with ideas and images tossed around in some purely abstract realm, but instead plays itself out between flesh and paper. It binds ideas with the vessels that hold them, with the circumstances of their use; it engages the full range of human faculties, at least as much so as parachuting or cooking or playing music. Reading is not in the least a detached exercise that separates the mental and the physical. It welds the touch and sight and smell of a moment to the vivid, hovering clouds of the imagination—fuses the body to the mind and soul.

I remember reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in the sanctuary of a church on a sunny Thursday afternoon when I was 15. I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops; it was a wood-pulp paper Penguin Classics edition; the temperature was 76 degrees, and the light through the stained glass windows felt like the cool of a river on a windless day.

—Columnist Spencer B.L. Lenfield can be reached at lenfield@college.harvard.edu.

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