001: Survival By Book
how this whole thing got started
Welcome to the debut issue of Survival by Book! You can think of this piece as the pilot episode—the one that sets up the season. Subsequent issues will feature short and long form pieces, guest writing, forums, and other fun stuff centered on—you guessed it—books and reading.
A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.
—Penelope Fitzgerald, in The Bookshop
Let’s begin with a hypothesis: reading a printed book—cloth-bound or paperback, deckle-edged or trimmed, dog-eared or ‘mint’, purchased or loaned—is one of the most important and disruptive things you can do right now.
And by disruptive I mean in the political sense, as in protest, revolt, and subvert. Also the creative sense, as in make it new, or even, self-care. I don’t mean mayhem. Not really.
Well, maybe a little.
Here is why I say this. Think about the first time a book turned the world on its ear. Circa 1535. William Tyndall, having been denied permission to translate the Bible into English--by his fellow Englishmen--has fled to Germany where he has gone right ahead and done the job. Martin Luther, having recently given the finger to the Pope, has done his part by translating the Bible into German. They are about to go into wide distribution, succeeding where the Lollards with their hand-made Wycliffe Bible could not, because of the printing press, given to the world by Johannes Gutenberg less than a hundred years before. Their translations will overrun the censors with sheer numbers of copies (although Tyndall will not outrun Henry VIII’s executioners). The result is that people—lots and lots of people—will inform themselves about their religion (and thus, their lives).
Inform themselves. For the first time. Remember that God was in charge in those days. Remember that God’s word in your hands was a weapon—not just against priests, but against kings.
In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s enormously absorbing novel of this time, Thomas Cromwell is both party to this proliferation of freedom of information and frustrated by it. A lover of textiles and connoisseur of fine, rare and beautifully made artefacts, he is especially drawn to books. He keeps a forbidden Tyndale translation locked up in full view of his private household, and his dead wife’s prayer book is the object he finds to be most evocative of her memory. But in his work for Henry VIII—persuading (or prosecuting, depending) the King’s constituents about His Majesty’s various and shifting legal agendas—he is thwarted by the very existence of print.
When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of.
In his work as a censor he finds himself jealous of the good old days because “nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.”
It is only 1537 and even the most powerful man in the kingdom cannot control the message.
This is a good thing. It will lead to Enlightenment, the rebirth of democracy, and the redistribution of wealth (in theory, at least).
Fast forward to now, to the time of leaks, whistleblowers, fake news, “fake news”, alternative facts, actual facts, fact-checkers, and counter-factuals. That single month that was once needed to gather a critical mass in protest is now a day and what was once a handbill leading to a brawl in a village is now an eight minute and 46 second video that leads to a summer-long global protest. Yes, paper and ink are now zeroes and ones, but it’s the same freedoms. The printing press has made way the path for the wisdom of crowds. The ease of digital is the end of censorship once and for all. We can all inform ourselves about everything now. The tyranny of popes and kings has ended. Civilization is all good.
Except, what if the death of censorship is the birth of surveillance?
What if about fifty percent of the crowds turn out to be not so wise?
What’s the use of your real-time private message to a powerful friend if every keystroke you make can be tracked?
The film maker, Laura Poitras, has been bearing witness to this particular rise and its pivot for a decade now, but for today, it is Citizen Four that best captures the moment when the printed word became revolutionary again. For most of the film, people wage a battle for privacy that they know they will lose. An anonymous hotel room in a crowded city isn’t enough privacy. All of Edward Snowden’s digital skills can’t provide enough privacy. Hiding him for more than a few days isn’t even on the table. We all know how this story ends.
But, in the last scene of the film, Poitras gives us our way out. In it, a few people must again meet to talk about something that they cannot safely talk about but that they feel they must. This time there isn’t even a few days’ privacy. Not even in another anonymous hotel room with the cracks between the floor and the door blocked, not even in a whisper. There is only one way to communicate that which is so dangerous that it must be communicated: write it down. That’s it. Put a pen to paper. An act that is as familiar as the back of your hand and as radical as hackers. No software needed. The last image in a cautionary film about the power of information technology is of a piece of paper with words on it being torn to shreds.
So, I ask you: What is the most untrackable way to exist as a human being right now?
Read a printed book. Have thoughts and feelings about it. Write them in the margins. Or don’t.
Give it to someone you trust and ask them to read it, too.
Have a conversation about it, in person, in a room.
Or, don’t share it. Lock your book in a chest and leave it for another generation.
You get to choose.
You decide who learns your thoughts and dreams and when.
I have a confession. I didn’t embark on a mission to bring back the printed book because I am a selfless supporter of the publishing industry. I began it because I am vain, and have FOMO, and don’t want to be seen as out of touch.
The problem is that I would still rather read a printed book and write in it and tote it, along with hundreds of other books, in dozens of boxes, from address to address, than not. Or stuff it into an over-full backpack alongside alternative book options B, C, and D, to take on an airplane for a week-long trip. I still carry a certain brand of notebook and a particular, long-favored kind of pen to a meeting. I am aware that this is starting to date me. I can’t change, but I flirt with being ashamed. I am worried that a person holding a book or a notebook—namely me—looks uncool. What if holding a book is...ok, boomer?
Awhile back, I went looking for validation—I just wanted to see if other people also liked holding a book instead of a screen. I made a survey in which I asked eight questions which was six questions too many. All of them were a version of do you like to read? If so, what do you read and how do you read it? I put my email and my mailing address at the bottom. Then, because this was in the time before I had given up Facebook, I posted it there.
It took less than half a day to start hearing back from people, more than I expected. Friends had shared the survey with friends who had shared the survey with friends, expanding my audience. And since my survey sample was not really very random since my Facebook friends were also a bunch of booknerds and, it is pretty safe to assume, their friends probably also trended toward booknerdism, I heard back what I wanted to hear, mostly things like this:
I HAVE to mark in my books. It’s ingrained in me. The jackets bother me--I usually take them off, or throw them away. Plus, I don’t like random people to know what I’m reading. I think that’s a defense mechanism that would take more psychoanalyzing though.
I have over the years purchased hundreds of books and am still working my way through that stock. I may have to live to be 100 to do it... Even when I travel, I am willing to give up room in my luggage to books. On a five-week trip recently, I took five books, but one of them was over 1000 pages—a 1979 paperback that took up very little space and weighed almost nothing, so it really didn’t cramp my style.
One respondent shared that he had realized that reading digital books meant that he has lost his ‘book muscle’ and no longer enjoyed holding up a fat hardcover nonfiction biography. He took it as his cue to go to the gym and to stop with the e-reader. Another insight I liked a lot was a friend’s friend who noted that she forgets the content of books she reads on her Kindle, but not of books she reads in print.
What I did not expect was the many–over a hundred people—who replied to my survey by snail mail. It turns out that survey had made its way from Facebook friend to Facebook friend to people in book clubs and, helpfully, librarians who were running book clubs and whose book club members were pleased to respond, care of the currently embattled United States Postal Service, to let me know that yes indeed, they read printed books, all the time, and did not plan to change anytime soon.
What was also not expected was how nice it was to get a letter in the mail. Every day for over two weeks, I got them. I began to walk down to the mailbox with anticipation. I began to notice the breeze. I remembered how pretty an envelope with handwriting and a stamp is, and how it signals something special: news, a confession, maybe a proposition. I noticed how good it feels to hold a couple of actual, written letters in your hand—they have a kind of heft and thickness—do you remember? I would bring these letters up to the house and pour a cup of tea. Open them one by one. Read something written, just to me. I wonder what’s in the post, I would say to myself, feeling wondrously like Lizzy Bennet.
It is one of these written responses that is my favorite. This respondent wrote:
Printed books are my preference. I fully enjoy the feel and warmth of the book held in my hands, sitting on my lap and the physical turn of the pages. It gives me a personal experience with the characters, storyline, and the emotions aroused. My reading time is special. Alone, sitting up at night in bed with just the right amount of light, is very personal and relaxing. Adjusting my pillow and body just right, placing the book on my lap. Opening the book to where I left off and perhaps reviewing where I am in the story. The physical motion of slipping the pages through my fingers when the time is right is part of the reading experience. Depending on the story, sometimes it asks for slow or hesitant turns. Sometimes, it asks for impulsive, quick, can’t wait to see what’s coming next, fast turns.
This, my friends, is demonstrable, hacker-proof, unsurveilled, private pleasure.
Let’s go back to Thomas Cromwell, because, why not?
In Mantel’s telling Cromwell--the guy whose job it was to send men in possession of certain books to the torturers--had a side hustle as a book collector. In one scene, Cromwell gives his protégée, Thomas Avery, a one of a kind, hand-made book, “perhaps the only good thing ever to come out of a monastery.” Mantel writes:
The book is bound in deepest green with a tooled border of gold, and its pages are edged in gilt, so that it blazes in the light. Its clasps are studded with blackish garnets, smooth, translucent. “I hardly dare open it,” the boy says.
“Please, you will like it.”
It is Summa de Arithmetica.
Cromwell tells Avery that he should put the book on his desk “so that you can be consoled by it when nothing seems to add up at all.”
Consoled. As in to alleviate or lessen grief or sorrow. From the French consoler (shocker), and perhaps more interestingly, Old English sæl, which sometimes meant happiness.
An affordable, portable, pleasant to touch, good for the brain, solace to the soul, palliative for grief and sorrow that is not addictive, nor owned by big pharma, or the Attorney General, not even by Jeff Bezos.
So, just to recap, book readers are cool. Printed books are private while still nurturing a sense of camaraderie across readers across age and location; they nurture mindfulness and an appreciation of this present moment that is hard to get these days; and they are downright sexy in bed.
The original inspiration for my Facebook survey is from the title of an essay by the poet Mary Ruefle, “Someone Holding a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World.”
In it, Ruefle articulates two more important, disruptive effects of reading a book: 1.) a stronger and more certain knowledge of who you are and, 2.) a stronger and more certain knowledge that who you are is great and marvelous.
Ruefle’s publisher is Wave, an independent press that publishes poetry and books on poetry in toothy, textured, photogenic editions, some of them hand-made, all of them beautiful to hold and behold, which, as we have seen, matters. The essay, which is in a collection entitled Madness, Rack, and Honey, is a series of vignettes that describe a passionate life of reading and pay tribute to the act and the object. In one example Ruefle describes reading and annotating the notebooks of the Greek poet George Seferis at the same time as she was re-reading some of her own private journals. In the morning, she tells us, she read a passage she liked and copied it out in her current journal. Then, she turned to a journal she’d written twenty years earlier. About this earlier journal, Ruefle writes,
I was reading the notebooks of the poet George Seferis and had copied into the journal by hand my favorite passage, which was identical with the passage I had copied earlier in the day, believing completely that I had never encountered it before.
Raise your hand if you’ve encountered your own marginalia and wondered for a moment, who wrote this? Who among us has not highlighted an entire page of Virginia Woolf in college and written symbolic! in the margins? Who among us should not be amused and a little in awe of that nerdy, idealistic young person who thought they were smart and understood books and had enough courage to go on to risk other terrible and magnificent things like falling in love, or trying to have a meaningful career, or having a child?
In her celebration of book marginalia, Ruefle gives an answer to the same question that I asked in my survey: why do you read?
In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?
Yes to books as a window into our own great weirdness.
This is rare magic, my friends. What other, better power is there in this over-exposed, under-whelming wreck of a world that we live in right now? What other magic gives us back our sense of self and indeed, arms us with it, over and over? I ask you.
As I write these words, today’s news cycle is coming in on all my channels.
Earlier today, I listened to more than an hour of a live public radio broadcast of my governor’s thrice-weekly Covid-19 briefing. And, by listened, I mean I thoughtfully and intentionally kept up in a format so dry and so hard to hear that it wouldn’t have held even a minute of my attention a year go. We are going on five months of this, and the journalists all still have to be told to unmute the microphone.
The non-pandemic news of the day is also a litany of terrors. I could list them here, but they will be surpassed by worse ones by the time you are reading this.
My social media self is rage-tweeting and scrolling. I have stopped my mother self, this time, from texting my young adult children to tell them, as casually as possible, to be safe, but I won’t be able to stop myself from doing this tomorrow or the next day. And, my anxious self is readying for the New England edition of Fury Road. I have laid up a store of shelf-stable food that would feed a large family for a month in preparation for the next lockdown, or storm of the century, or generalized bout of panic-buying. I am learning how to ‘put by’ the vegetables and berries from the enormous garden that I stress-planted while working from home this spring. I have batteries, a crank radio, flashlights, protein bars, bottled water, some old antidepressants, and an enormous pair of ski mittens in a go-bag. I have plenty of toilet paper (though definitely not as much as all of those other crazy hoarder people have). I have definitely priced both a generator and a second freezer: also, solar panels and a Tesla battery. I have caught myself wondering, if when the heat of climate change ruins my state’s farmlands, will late summer berry-picking will be just a distant memory? My brain regularly goes from what’s for dinner to dystopian hellscape during the commute from the back yard to the kitchen.
I am fully aware that I am among the luckiest of citizens right now by virtue of being white, of being able to do my job from home, and because I live in a low-Covid state But inside my relatively safe bubble, the bit about living alone is hard. It’s a tricky thing in a pandemic. On the one hand, I don’t have a child crashing into my online meetings and needing attention. On the other hand, I don’t have the snuggly, sticky, wonderful feeling of hugging a child. I don’t have the feeling of hugging anyone--I have barely touched another human being for months. I wake up alone, work alone, eat alone, do my few errands alone, and go to bed alone. Seeing friends and coworkers online every day helps, but only just. It’s odd to have this much solitude, and I am someone who really relishes her solitude.
I have more privacy that I have ever had in my life.
Oh, the irony.
I have grown used to being able to watch a tiny video version of myself during all of my interactions. When I do interact in real life, with my neighbors or the grocery store clerk, my voice sounds odd to me—am I talking too loud or too fast? And, what are the appropriate gestures to make when ending a conversation? Do I wave like I do at the end of video conferences? Every now and then I wonder what do I do if I get sick. I can’t ask anyone to expose themselves to help me, and I don’t want to burden my kids. Never mind if I get Covid—just, what if I can’t take care of myself for a day? Or a week?
My body feels odd and detached, sometimes. I pat myself down and reassure myself. You’re ok, I say. You’re still here. Sometimes it helps. I wish I had known not to take the touch of another human being for granted.
I now have this thing I often do before I leave the house or go to bed. I clean things up: dishes done, dirty clothes in hamper, trash taken out, misc. liquor bottles put away, journal shelved. This isn’t just normal tidying. This is very intentional scene setting. If I get sick and someone has to come in to my house and help me, I don’t want to look pathetic. (Other than being so pathetically sick that someone has to come into my house and help me of course.) If I die, and my kids and friends have to go through my stuff, I don’t want my random to-do lists and half-scribbled journal pages to belie the cheery messages of my Instagram posts.
(So much for celebrating my own great weirdness.)
But then, as ever, it is books to the rescue. Just like when I was in 4th grade and being bullied, Harriet-the-Spy style, or when I was 19 and accidentally pregnant, Lorelai Gilmore style, or 32 and going through a divorce, Elizabeth Gilbert style, or 43 and going through an unbearable and unceasing stretch of empty nest grief, Courtney Cook, style—there are always books.
These days, at this time in my life, there are upstairs and downstairs bookstacks. Downstairs is Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch; How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel; Why We Sleep; Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker; Patience, by Toby Litt, W.E.B Du Bois’s Data Portraits; Visualizing Black America, edited by Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert. Books for self-improvement. Books for literary thrills. A book of marvelous beauty.
Upstairs, in my bedroom, I have comfort reads: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman and all four of the Miss Buncle books by D.E. Stevenson for escapism. Mary Ruefle’s Dunce, Ada Limón’s “Bright Dead Things,” and Megan Fernandes’ Good Boys for poetry. The London Review of Books for an oh so esoteric soporific.
Some books are for everywhere, though. In April and May, I read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light like it was a new lover—I did that book upstairs and downstairs, out in the hammock, and standing at the kitchen counter. (Depending on the story, sometimes it asks for slow or hesitant turns. Sometimes, it asks for impulsive, quick, can’t wait to see what’s coming next, fast turns.) It’s perfect timing that this last book of Mantel’s great trilogy, published at the exact moment when a plague swept the world, is about the decay of Cromwell and Henry VIII’s visionary and flawed political project. It’s a good thing for all of us, then, that in her telling Cromwell’s execution is a burst of dignity, memory and recognition:
He sees how they are visible, and how they shine. They are distilled into a spark, into an instant. There is air between their ribs, their flesh is honeycombed with light, and the marrow of their bones is molten with God’s grace.
If I die alone in a pandemic, destined not to be found for weeks, let my death be like Mantel’s Cromwell.
No, really, it’s good.
And here’s why:
If the worst happens, I know how I will survive. It doesn’t matter if no one can travel to be with me. It doesn’t matter if the internet crashes or the Netflix shows run out. Let the phone go dead and the heat go out (or up). Let my vocal cords shrivel. I will take my stack of books and crawl under the covers and weather it out. I will read to feed my angry, outraged self, and I will read to remember my laughing, curious and loving self. I will read to lose track of time in colorful and strange new worlds. I will read and know I am not alone.
I will read for hours and hours, lost in new worlds, not thinking of today’s troubles, like I did when I was a girl.
Bring on the worst. It’s survival by book.