Dec 11 2017

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

A ghost––either of Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848), or Andrew Lang (1844–1912), or Jorge Borges (1899–1986)––asks how differently I read a book (or author) when:

(1) I’ve bought the book,

(2) I’ve been lent the book from a friend or library,

(3) I’ve been given the book (and cannot re-gift it), or

(4) I’ve stolen the book?[1]

For scenarios (1) and (4), the answer involves me as an individual recognizing my own need to read. But in scenarios (2) and (3), it is someone else who recognizes the need for me to read something I have yet to get around to or perhaps deserve to reread. For I read differently when I want to read compared to the times when someone else wants me to read, either silently to myself or aloud to anyone around.


When I was a child there were two kinds of trees: those you could climb, and those you couldn’t. Funny, I don’t remember thinking of buildings this way, even though the same principle would apply. But architecture is frozen music,[2] while books are trees. My childish eyes looked only for attainable branches to grab, sturdy knots to claw, and convenient toeholds to brace.

And these days I think I still think of books like that: books and trees that can be read or climbed versus those that can’t, or, at least on initial inspection, look too challenging to attempt. For example Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) is a towering redwood whose canopy I slowly approach. ’Tis a big book, one I began reading in June of this year, and, after taking about 60 pages worth of notes, am only about a third of the way through. I scoot up its trunk with some fear and much trembling, not knowing what I’ll find when I reach the top, or how I’ll safely get back down.



[1] Andrew Lang, The Library, (New York, NY: Macmillan & Co, 1881). Reprinted under Dodo Press. 2004:

The Book-Ghoul is he who combines the larceny of the biblioklept with the abominable wickedness of breaking up and mutilating the volumes from which he steals … He prepares books for the American market. (p. 28)

See also D’Israeli’s essay “A Bibliognoste” in Curiosities of LiteratureVol. III, (Sixth edition, London: John Murray, 1817.)

[2] Goethe, Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, (1811–1830) in Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, (trans. R. O. Moon, Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949) II, 43.

Jun 24 2017

Non-Books, Counter-Books, and Not-Books

mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Non-Books, Counter-Books, and Not-Books

Sometimes book-lovers start imagining books beyond books. First, take Larry McMurtry:

I take it that a non-book is a publication in book form that need not and should not be read. Life is, after all, short, sweet, and uncertain—the last thing it should be wasted on is a non-book. The publishers who subsist on non-books recognize this truth and design their publications in a manner guaranteed to minimize such vagrant readability as they might have. Weak typefaces prevail, and a lavish use of well-printed pictures carry the entranced looker past whatever text there may be.[1]

This reminds me of a passage from Borges:

The books themselves are also odd. Works of fiction are based on a single plot, which runs through every imaginable permutation. Works of natural philosophy invariably include thesis and antithesis, the strict pro and con of a theory. A book which does not include its opposite, or “counter-book,” is considered incomplete.[2]

And finally from Albert Mobilio’s recent piece “The Bookness of Not-Books” in The Paris Review:

Our reaction to these artists’ books moves along the continuum between seeing and reading. Included are Barry Moser’s wood engravings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which could be said to fall into the more common category of illustrated books. These images serve to enhance the text, to make our reading experience more literal, more detailed, and perhaps more comprehensible. (Of course, many argue that such visual aids, like film adaptations, in fact encumber the imagination.) This sort of book—at least in its mass-market edition—is meant to be handled and read, its images checked against our own visualizations. When the art part of the book—the possessive in artists’ books is telling—becomes increasingly salient, the experience of the text can become subordinate to the experience of the visual and even end up almost incidental. (In The End of the World as Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame, Blaise Cendrars’s words, when exploded in a variety of typefaces and colors, are hardly distinguishable from Fernand Léger’s colliding shapes, which appear throughout the collaborative volume.) These are books and pages intended to be seen but not necessarily read.[3]


[1] Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood. NY: Simon & Schuster. 1987. p. 76.

[2] “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Translated by Alastair Reid. Ficciones. 1941. NY: Grove Press. Evergreen Edition. 1963. pp. 28-29.

[3] “The Bookness of Not-Books.” The Paris Review. June 22, 2017.

Mar 18 2011

First of Three Proposals: Toward a Poetics of Ignornace

See also Second of Three Proposals: Toward a Frankenstein-like Poetics

Third of Three Proposals: Toward Reconciling a Poetics of Ignorance with a Frankensten-like Poetics

1.0 We accept De Quincy’s demarcation[1] for all books in the Library of Babel[2]: There are “books of knowledge” and “books of power.”

1.1 If books of power are not books of knowledge, they are, in some sense, “books of ignorance.”[3]

1.2 A writer who follows (or applies) a poetics of ignorance produces books of ignorance.

1.3 When applying a poetics of ignorance, the writer should not “write what he knows”—on the contrary: he should write what he doesn’t know. As author he must advertise his avoidances and make his text transparent by unveiling, confessing that which he knows not.

2.0 Because books of power are also books of ignorance, whenever an author attempts to beckon (and reckon) Truth, it tends only to bore the reader. This is because generally, truths and beliefs preached by the writer, or portrayed by his characters drive away the reader’s attention. The presence of truth drives a reader’s attention to halt, stop, stay static. Conversely, any ideas unknown to the reader, unfamiliar (novel) ideas to which the reader is ignorant, tend to intrigue the reader.

2.1 “Doubt”, for readers, includes all ideas unknown, unfamiliar, or novel (and intriguing) to them. Doubt is a stimulus for readers—it stimulates their attention, spurs intrigue, births curiosity, channels wonder, and drives their attention to continuing its quarrying.[4] Following a poetics of ignorance allows a writer to cultivate, articulate intriguing doubts that will stimulate readers onward, page after page.

3.0 Writers of books of ignorance must learn to display novelty: hence the name of the literary form, the Novel. Writers must display novelty, not for the sake of notoriety but rather for displaying their own wonderment at that novelty. When a writer acknowledges novelty, she conveys ignorance to her reader. Anything the writer considers novel must be, in some sense, unfamiliar, because those things unfamiliar to her are the things to which she is ignorant and curious about.

3.1 According to Peirce,[5] and contrary to Descartes, the writer cannot know her unknowns (or the things to which she is ignorant)—but she can know her doubts:

It cost me much Trouble to explain to him what I was doing; for the Inhabitants have not the least Idea of Books or Literature…. It was with some Difficulty, and by the help of many Signs, that I brought him to understand me. He replied, That I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not. (For they have no Word in their Language to express Lying or Falsehood.)

––Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), IV, iii.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

––Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus (1921), § 7.0.

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns––the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

––Donald Rumsfield, Department of Defense News Brief for February 12, 2002.


[1] De Quincy, Thomas. [“The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.”] a.k.a. “Letters to a Young Man whose Education has been neglected.” London Magazine, March, 1823. Masson, x. 46. Quoted from De Quincys Literary Criticism. ed. Helen Darbishire. 1909. H. Frowde, London.

[2] In his fictional short story “The Library of Babel” (1941) Borges begins: “The universe (which others call the Library).” (See Ficciones, 1956. Trans. and ed. by Anthony Kerrigan, Grove Press. 1962. pp. 79–88.)

Borges elsewhere calls it “the utopia of the Total Library” and that it contains:

Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings…. The vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wildernesses of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god. (Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Total Library.” (1939). Selected Nonfictions. Ed. and trans. by Eliot Weinberger. Penguin Books. 1999. pp. 214–216.)

[3] De Quincy claims that one kind of opposite to a “book of knowledge” would be a “book of pleasure” or amusement, yet he finds a truer antithesis (or opposite nature) to be a “book of power.” The true nature of our First Proposal seems to be a bit “Gnostic” considering we have set gnosis (knowledge) against agnosis (ignorance).

[4] From C. S. Peirce:

“We generally know when we wish to ask a question and when we wish to pronounce a judgment, for there is a dissimilarity between the sensation of doubting and that of believing…. The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief.”

––The Fixation of Belief (1877).

“Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action.”

––How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878).

While doubt makes a reader, on the other hand, gout makes the writer. At this point a “poetics of pain” may come into play—one that has elsewhere been articulated by Nietzsche in his Genealogy of Morals (1877).

[5] From Peirce’s Some Consequences of Our Four Capacities (1868):

In some, or all of these respects, most modern philosophers have been, in effect, Cartesians. Now without wishing to return to scholasticism, it seems to me that modern science and modern logic require us to stand upon a very different platform from this.

1. We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he has given up. It is, therefore, as useless a preliminary as going to the North Pole would be in order to get to Constantinople by coming down regularly upon a meridian. A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.

2. The same formalism appears in the Cartesian criterion, which amounts to this: “Whatever I am clearly convinced of, is true.” If I were really convinced, I should have done with reasoning and should require no test of certainty. But thus to make single individuals absolute judges of truth is most pernicious. The result is that metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; — only they can agree upon nothing else. In sciences in which men come to agreement, when a theory has been broached it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is reached. After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because there is no one left who doubts it. We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers. Hence, if disciplined and candid minds carefully examine a theory and refuse to accept it, this ought to create doubts in the mind of the author of the theory himself.

3. Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.

4. Every unidealistic philosophy supposes some absolutely inexplicable, unanalyzable ultimate; in short, something resulting from mediation itself not susceptible of mediation. Now that anything is thus inexplicable can only be known by reasoning from signs. But the only justification of an inference from signs is that the conclusion explains the fact. To suppose the fact absolutely inexplicable, is not to explain it, and hence this supposition is never allowable…. We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable. These propositions cannot be regarded as certain; and, in order to bring them to a further test, it is now proposed to trace them out to their consequences.