When I was kid, I went through a period when I would build a variety of elaborate toothpick bridges only to the destroy them.
Much later in life, I was delighted to discover that Tibetan Buddhists create elaborate and beautiful sand mandalas only to destroy them.
There is, of course, much more to the Buddhist ritual than the childish delight of destroying that which you yourself have made, but I’m sure more than a few monks have swept away a mandala with a measure of the delight I experienced when I destroyed my toothpick bridges.
It is from the perspective of the Tibetan mandalas and my childhood bridges that I often think about the ephemeral and impermanent nature of the digital medium.
A thousand years from now, unlike clay tablets or papyrus or archival paper, it is absolutely certain that these words you are now reading will not exist for anyone else to read. Even if the data and the hard drives on which it is scattered somehow survive, it is improbable that anyone will know how to use any of it to reproduce these words. In point of fact, the data on some of my older technology may already be lost to history and the Buddhist bridge burner in me takes a certain measure of satisfaction in that certainty.
Books — both the idea of them and the tangible artifacts — once played an important role in my life and identity. Like most smart kids born into an unreliable and, at times, hostile circumstance, they were a place of refuge and hope. It was in the reflection of the books I read that I first saw the possibility of my self. I still remember the experience of revealing — from the box in which it was sent — the very first book I picked for myself to own.
Years later, the two bags I took with me to New Zealand were full of books that I had carefully selected to put on the shelf of my office as a kind of mosaic of my intellectual pedigree. It occurs to me only now, as I write these words, that the decision to sell (almost) all my books at the end of my Ph.D. is no different than a new atheist destroying his once cherished icons. It also helps explain why there were a few books I just couldn’t part with.
With the creation of the soft cover version of my novel A Derivation of Love, I am once again reminded of the weight and value of books as independent entities over and beyond their instrumental value as a storeroom of ideas. Maybe that is the magic and mystery of a treasured book. A book is the word made flesh and it is a flesh resplendent with the possibility of immortality.
What’s your favorite book, when you think of it as an artifact rather than as the story or ideas it contains?