Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Best Books Are Humble

It strikes me, having reread my previous post "The Best Books Are Hard to Read," that there's a vulnerability to conceit on the part of readers and writers of books that are hard to read. I maintain that the best books are clearly and compellingly written, yet leave the reader uncomfortable and in need of company. But the best books aren't merely hard to read; the best books are also humble.

That's not always been the case. Once upon a time the best books were written by the best people--at least according to the best publicists. Books were the domain of the privileged, the wildly successful, the ridiculously influential, the most likely to succeed. Thomas Merton wrote cavalierly about the inevitability of his friends being published in Seven Storey Mountain. Not to compare the two, but Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf could be published because he was going places.

But the best books are necessarily humble, in the sense that they can be written with only a modicum of authority. Merton does that; Hitler doesn't. Meanwhile, although book-writing still has some of its mystique, it has been effectively stripped of authority. If I--some random guy from the suburbs--can write two books (one about comic books, even though I have no background in the comic book industry beyond throwing a lot of my money at it), then really anyone can be elevated to the authority of the author. Ah, democracy.

That's OK, though, because authority is really somewhat ephemeral to begin with, and with some 200,000 titles in English being published every year, every book is ephemeral. No book can reasonably claim to have the final word, and woe to all of us if one book did have the final word, because only the heavy hand of providence could ensure that we'd find it in the enormous annual pile of print.

So the best books recognize that the hard things they have to say are only one voice in a much, much larger conversation, and that the conversation is ongoing, and that the things they say will, in the best world, ultimately be supplanted by better words and better thoughts.

1 comment:

Bob/Sir Pent said...

Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble
When you're perfect in every way
I can't wait to look in the mirror
Cuz I get better lookin' each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a helluva man
Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble
But I'm doing the best that I can
- Mac Davis