Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Perfect Book

Photograph by Sophie Berdzenishvili

"... For Mallarme the perfect book is one whose pages have never been cut, their mystery forever preserved, like a bird's folded wing, or a fan never opened." - Maggie Nelson, Bluets

I have a confession: there's a book (a novel) - to preserve the secret I won't reveal the title - I speak of as if I've read, though I never actually have.

I've owned this book for ten years, at least, so time isn't an excuse. I've picked it up dozens of times with the intention of reading it; I've brought it on trips; I've read about it in other books, but I've always held back from reading it. From what I gather it's not particularly difficult or intimidating. Based on my literary predilections, it's a book I am absolutely certain is "my kind" of literature.

Even given my not-having-read-the-book, I've often recommended it to people based on... not false pretenses, exactly, but a feeling that this book, the one I haven't read but feel a deep affinity for nevertheless, deserves to be read - by others. I've always equivocated, saying, for instance: "I love X." or "X. means a lot to me." Despite the fact that I've not read it, these statements are not false. I do love the novel, it does mean a lot to me. (In fact, given its special place in my reading - or rather non-reading - history, I cherish it more than many of the books I've read and loved.)

When I occasionally suffer pangs of guilt or worry that I'm making fraudulent claims or deceiving people who put their trust in my taste (not to speak of my sense of honor), I remind myself that there are innumerable things I love without fully understanding and that I am perfectly happy not to understand: the mechanics of flight, nebulae, the French language, evolution, baking. (To name a few.)

It would seem that a book belongs to a different species of object: a book is for reading, after all, that's its agreed-upon function. Yet does the fact that we can read a book limit it to that exclusive use? I hope not. (Do birds fly so we can understand flight?) I think it's possible to love the idea of a book or the way it feels in your hands or looks on your shelf or the memories it evokes. (Or, perhaps, for other, more ineffable reasons.) I think it's possible that the feeling we have for a book - based on whatever affinity or memory - is sufficient to serve as the only justification necessary for our enthusiasm.

I wonder if you agree.


Richard said...

I do agree. That you haven't read this book is itself a fascinating story, and one that wouldn't have existed had you indeed read the book in question. Reading it would have told a different story, would have created a different set of impressions, validated the book as an object for reading. But your book, this book, for you, is an object of fascination, of imagination and potential. It's how many books begin in our lives, and sometimes we are overjoyed to preserve this state of things. What I am curious most about is not the title of the book, but of the way it looks, the way it feels in your hands, its scent, texture, its colors. The resonance of the author's name, for you, the feeling it evokes. The title. Not the book itself, but the story it tells you when you think of it, the way it exists in your thoughts. Shed your occasional pangs of guilt, and enjoy the presence of this book in your life as something quite different, but no less important, than a book that has been read from the first page to the last.

jaynealyce said...

Lovely. And I agree. I have one of those books too - although I have read parts of it, I think it's better to leave unread and loved than read and perhaps (even slightly) disliked...