The books—the generous friends who met me without suspicion—the merciful masters who never used me ill! The only years of my life that I can look back on with something like pride… Early and late, through the long winter nights and the quiet summer days, I drank at the fountain of knowledge, and never wearied of the draught.
Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.
I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle. All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across the millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.
I had lines inside me, a string of guiding lights. I had language. Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination. I had been damaged, and a very important part of me had been destroyed - that was my reality, the facts of my life. But on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel. And as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn't lost.
MarginaliaSometimes the notes are ferocious,skirmishes against the authorraging along the borders of every pagein tiny black script.If I could just get my hands on you,Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,they seem to say,I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -that kind of thing.I remember once looking up from my reading,my thumb as a bookmark,trying to imagine what the person must look likewho wrote "Don't be a ninny"alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.Students are more modestneeding to leave only their splayed footprintsalong the shore of the page.One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.Another notes the presence of "Irony"fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,Hands cupped around their mouths.Absolutely," they shoutto Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation pointsrain down along the sidelines.And if you have managed to graduate from collegewithout ever having written "Man vs. Nature"in a margin, perhaps nowis the time to take one step forward.We have all seized the white perimeter as our ownand reached for a pen if only to showwe did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;we pressed a thought into the wayside,planted an impression along the verge.Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoriajotted along the borders of the Gospelsbrief asides about the pains of copying,a bird singing near their window,or the sunlight that illuminated their page-anonymous men catching a ride into the futureon a vessel more lasting than themselves.And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,they say, until you have read himenwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.Yet the one I think of most often,the one that dangles from me like a locket,was written in the copy of Catcher in the RyeI borrowed from the local libraryone slow, hot summer.I was just beginning high school then,reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,and I cannot tell youhow vastly my loneliness was deepened,how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,when I found on one pageA few greasy looking smearsand next to them, written in soft pencil-by a beautiful girl, I could tell,whom I would never meet-Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love.
What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."[Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory (1980)]