Saturday, November 7, 2009

In Spite of Fires on the Horizon

The publishing industry has been through ups and downs many times before, and has faced numerous challenges, yet books continue to be written, published and read. Whenever people are fretting about e-books or bookstore closings, I find reassurance in this poem by Czeslaw Milosz, which reminds me that books have been here for a long time and will be here after all of us worrywarts are gone. 
I confess there's a part of me that wonders if these words are still true in the age of Kindle. The oldest physical book I know of is 2500 years old, while the longest projected lifetime of any digital medium today is about 100 years. Will books always "be there on the shelves"? I can't be certain. But if I look at the novel I'm reading now on my iPhone, it still seems to be "derived from radiance." 
Perhaps if Milosz wrote in a hundred years' time, the line would say "the books will be there in the cloud." That seems no less poetic. 

And Yet the Books

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings, 

That appeared once, still wet 

As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn, 

And, touched, coddled, began to live 

In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up, 

Tribes on the march, planets in motion. 

“We are,” they said, even as their pages 

Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame 

Licked away their letters.
So much more durable

Than we are, whose frail warmth 

Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.

I imagine the earth when I am no more: 

Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant, 

Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley. 

Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born, 

Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

(From New & Collected Poems 1931-2001 by Czeslaw Milosz, Ecco)


Michael Kaplan said...

Yes, but... the few eighteenth-century books I have on my shelves are still glossy as chestnuts; they are yet there, high born. The books I bought twenty years ago are rapidly turning into brown dust; these, my youth's companions, will not even survive my middle age. Print can be as evanescent as the Kindle.

Peter Ginna said...

Very true. I spent four years working at Widener Library, where as you know, one might find books two or even more centuries old on the shelves (along with a great deal of notable graffiti, such as what seemed to be a treasure hunt written in runes from Lord of the Rings that wound throughout the stacks. I always regret not deciphering it all). It was striking what good condition 17th or 18th century books were in, especially compared to those from the late 19th century which would crumble under my fingers as I leafed through them. I concede one must take "And Yet the Books" as a statement of poetic truth rather than bibliographic fact.