How do you relate to books?
Corona and the literature : The world-book relationship is out of joint
My bookseller, a terrifying book drinker, confessed almost contrite that she had hardly been able to drink the usual amount of books since Corona ruled, but would have sipped from a youth book for days, a sip here and a sip there, simply terrible.
Just imagine: a book for young people, not too difficult ... just tiny sips ... for days. It's over the mountain. Anyone who has eyes sees and reads everywhere: Something has gotten into disarray between the world and the books, between the readers and their readings.
Book boxes are overflowing in front of the houses, people are starting to sort their libraries (optionally by color, author, subject area, size, language) and book dust is flying out of windows; Book sales are collapsing, but on every street corner, in every feature section, great book tips lurk.
Readers want help in life
Reading, it is said, is a bibliotherapy against the pandemic hectic rush, but others believe that they can already see face masks on words and therefore cannot concentrate on the meaning of them.
The old model of escapism - whoever reads, flees to another world - seems to have been suspended since the world itself began to feel like a book. If the world is a novel, then who needs a book?
On the other hand, says my bookseller, the readers flock and ask for help and orientation material, the book as a compass. Their sales have even increased, “The Plague” by Camus sells like sliced bread, Boccaccio's “Decamerone” is also in demand, and books in which people struggle with epidemics or silent ghosts find good sales.
If you ask friends and acquaintances, since I've been living in the home office, I can no longer read because the office eats up the home and sells the books.
Others believe that their relationship with books has never been so intimate, yes, the worlds of letters felt transformed, as if one could break out into new, highly welcome uncertainties like in childhood with Tolkien, Jules Verne or Karl May.
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Some stand in front of the bookshelf and discover the book of their life in the shadiest corner, others suddenly feel the need to only touch certain titles with gloves and sort them out. The flood of new releases looks ancient, old ones shine fresh for the future.
I myself discover all these modes in me, the impatience with the books, dusting, sifting, organizing, giving away, conveying away, igniting and falling in love. Although married, I am currently discovering myself as a bibliophage polyamorist who discovers new correspondences between the world, the books, the books in me and the worlds in the books, fluid paths on which one can swim, stroll, drift along, fight for survival.
The pandemic is an author or not, it is a story or not, and we are its readers, its authors, its prisoners, its inhabitants, their stories. In short: the world-book relationship is out of joint!
The metaphor of the world as a book or as an infinite library, as Borges said, no longer grasps the existential jumble in which we move and feel. Stéphane Mallarmé, eager to write the book of books, once proudly claimed: "Everything in the world only exists to flow into the book."
Don't all books end up in the world? Can the entities such as reader, author, book or world still be separated? Quite a few people feel just transformed. Who was I, who am I and who can I be? Did someone write me?
Will someone overwrite me? Am I a palimpsest, a scraped-off document, often and often written on, erased and rewritten? Does the state, the epidemic, the time write me?
Some people in the feature pages shout that the pandemic is looking for its author, the first corona diaries are thrown on the market, but all of this looks helpless because the pandemic itself looks like a simultaneous work without a bank and an author, like a state that is at best updated , but can no longer be told.
The virologists stammer as if their tongues had been cast in lead because the whole world asks them to write the book of books, the all-powerful, the total novel. And in the middle of it all we, alone and yet together, atomized and yet collectivized, in deadly proximity and life-saving distance.
It almost seems as if people are letting themselves be more attentive than usual, one studies movement patterns, faces, one becomes a hermeneut in the queue and tries to read the slipped away everyday life. Even people who read little suddenly read, even if they do not pick up the book, but rather to meet.
Anyone who reads is cheating
This is where, it seems to me, the book comes back into play, because of course books are training in modes of feeling and empathy, and anyone who has read Marcel Proust's novel “In Search of Lost Time” is not a better person, but one who has inhibitions to understand reading only as neoliberal fitness training.
Anyone who reaches for books right now to wrest instrumental survival techniques from them will probably miss the point of reading, although no one can say with certainty what the sole purpose of a book is.
To come back to the bibliophage polyamorist once more: Reading - this comparison comes to mind right now - is also an erotic act. Anyone who reads is cheating. Anyone who reads sometimes kisses words on the cheek and hugs a narrative window like a lover. Don't you read to have relationships with total strangers?
In order to escape the narrowness of the coded and determined upper room? Okay, I wouldn't have the patience to walk over thousands of pages with Charles Swann through Proust's world of novels, but I'm just discovering old book friends like Odo Marquard or Theodor W. Adorno and I'm fascinated by how their thoughts become keys that I use can open doors to the present for me.
Although both philosophers were more antagonistic, they make friends in my frontal lobe, not only because as writers they were virtuosos of the fragment (fits well with the fragmentation of the time), but also because one (Adorno) himself as a rebel against the perfect calamity understood and the other (Marquard) was a rebel against all too great political and philosophical human demands.
With these two thinking rivals, I win moments of freedom for myself in the Corona novel without an author, which is at the same time eye and existential training, because it seems impossible that we will still be alive tomorrow like yesterday.
What is certain is that we have to read or have to learn to read. With or without books. It might work without books, but not without storytellers and stories. It won't work without Robert Walser and his art of crazy language walks, and it won't work without Richard Brautigan and his bombproof sentences.
Walser and Brautigan are also artists of modesty, virtuosos of the fragment, advocates of the micro-world. A typical Brautigan story begins like this: “I do what everyone else does: I live in San Francisco.” Rum, I'm already free as a reader, far away and in the middle of another time warp!
That leads us to another tough cut: Walser, Adorno, Brautigan and Marquard, all dead, died in that order.
Pandemic turns strangers into friends
I am almost certain that these four names have never before been in a row, so close together, so alive, and this meeting of reading, writing and life establishes a bridge moment, a reading society that might never have come about, if we weren't locked up and liberated in strange stories.
Or to put it another way: the pandemic throws strangers and books together that become friends.
I can't remember the first word I could read. I ask my wife if she still remembers her first word, her first book. It comes like a shot from a pistol: "Bear!" - "Why do you remember that so exactly?" - "Because the Ä has two ears like the bear and the B is buzzing!"
How beautiful, I think, there is not only an animal in a word, but also a memory and the ability to connect signs with one another in such a way that they are images that can become bridges between people, times and biographies. If there is so much history in one word, what must be possible in books?
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