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)