Herman Melville and the Power of the Book

Recently, Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated film The Great Gatsby was released into theaters. I haven’t seen it yet, and furthermore have heard mixed reviews about it. However, what has impressed me about the response I have seen from the community does not concern the film itself per se, but rather the earnestness with which everyone from my friends and acquaintances to the guy I bought dinner from at the Reading Terminal Market largely have formed their conclusions about the film based on how they perceive it to rate in comparison to Fitzgerald’s novel. I don’t know how to feel about this. The optimist in me wants to shout “Hooray!”, seeing it as a sign that people do still care about literature, at least enough that the community as a whole still seems to believe in holding up this novel from eighty years ago as a measure by which more “contemporary” renditions should be judged. On the other hand, the pessimist in me reminds me that the fact that familiarity with the book is so widespread has more to do with the fact that it’s included on most American high school required reading lists than that American culture in general is particularly well-read. Furthermore, the The Great Gatsby gained its status as a cultural icon years ago, long before the technology explosion of the past twenty years that has largely distracted our culture from the art of reading well. Old reputations die hard—hence why we still cling to our favorite editions of Austen, Shakespeare and Fitzgerald–but it’s quite possible that we have now reached a point in our culture where no novel can hope to obtain the same level of significance as novels in the past have. Even recent bestselling novels of dubious literary value, such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray, become sensations because they are in part written to sell, targeting certain demographics and, to an extent, actually produced by the expensive marketing campaigns set up around them. I am reminded, ultimately, that it seems no novel written primarily for literary rather than marketing value, no matter how much it is praised by critics of famous journals and newspapers, will ever again possess such a grip on our society as The Great Gatsby did and still does, or for that matter The Catcher in the Rye or  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

To take a giant step into the past and make a seemingly unrelated observation: for Herman Melville, acquiring books was such a big deal that he felt driven to write out a detailed list of all of the books he obtained on his trip to London in 1849. It’s hard now to imagine, but books were once literally the only means, and thus the center, of intellectual and creative exchange. When people like Melville were not reading and absorbing knowledge, they were pondering what they read while they ate and did menial chores. They were discussing the subjects of their books with their family and friends. And they were sometimes contributing to this vast body of knowledge with their own thoughts. Because books were the only method of conveying ideas, they were so esteemed that Herman Melville himself ran giddily to his notebook to list his newly-obtained books for posterity. Bibliophile that I am, I can imagine him glancing over at his pile of new books gleaming in the firelight of his candle as he wrote his out his list one autumn evening, now and then stopping simply to stroke the cover of this thick volume or to open this thin one open at random to a page and glance at the words written there, savoring the anticipation of what he would learn from this book by the time he read this passage again. Melville’s list demonstrates a reverence for the actual material book, stemming from its power as the only tool in Melville’s day of communicating ideas across boundaries of time and space (I suspect that books may have been priviliged over magazines and other print media in this respect, since books would have represented a kind of permanence that no periodical could have hoped to achieve). Nowadays, we have the web, which is definitely a great tool—don’t get me wrong. But the newfound availability of vast amounts of information readily available at one’s fingertips, including e-books, has diminished the reverence for the material book that Melville’s list suggests used to exist before the days of commonplace computers. I love books—I love the smell of them, the feel of their pages, the many shades of rustling noises that the leaves of various books make as you turn them. But I don’t think it’s possible for me to be able to feel the same respect for them that I would have had in a world where they were literally the only way of leaving the mundane of the everyday and existing in the world of ideas. In any case, we can never know, unless some book lover out there is able to invent a time machine, erase the existence of the internet from her memory, and live for a time in Melville’s world to report to us the significance that books took on for her then. It is difficult to imagine someone running excitedly to their notebook to write out the list of books they have just purchased today, however, simply for the sheer pleasure of reliving the experience of browsing, selecting, and anticipating the reading of them. People hardly devote that amount of time to considering the material book itself, anymore. This seems to accompany a decreased sense in the importance of the book, overall—e-books, simply one of many bright electronic screens people stare at everyday, become simply one insignificant part of the giant streams of information we intake all the time. For many people, books don’t seem to hold a separate status from other kinds of information anymore. I wonder if the fact that the e-book is not distinguishable from other kinds of electronic writing has anything to do with our inability to be moved by books as a society, as I mentioned above.

I hope that our distraction-laden generation never forgets this power of books that Melville, his contemporaries, and his predecessors could not help but experience with every iota of their being, every moment of their waking days. I hope that, though it seems inevitable that our libraries will devolve into dust-laden museums that “old fogies” sometimes visit but that everyone else stays away from, our children and grandchildren will at least grow up aware of the elegance and nobility of the printed book, of the significant role it once held in culture and society. I hope that we humans never lose the sense of awe and respect for books, particularly literature, that drove Melville to coin his list all those years ago.