The Vertical Magic of the Written Word

Where are the words that you are reading now? And what are they?

Where are the words that you are reading now?  And what are they?

Are words just pixels on a screen?  That can't be right, since this precise arrangement of pixels, words, is causing a particular reaction in your brain.  If we took the same number of pixels and arranged them differently, your brain would react in a different way, or not at all. 

An old-fashioned way to pose the same question would refer to ink.  Are words ink on paper?  Again, that cannot be correct, since a different splotch of the same amount of ink would mean something different, or most likely nothing.  The pixels or the ink are only a word if they animate your mind.  Since that is true, the written word does not exist solely in the physical world. If you point at the screen, you are not really pointing to a word.

Should we then decide that words exist in our mental worlds?  If they are not on a screen or on paper, are they the reactions they call forth in our minds as we read?  This does not work either.  We are also part of those reactions.  Every word we read at a given moment comes to us through everything that has ever happened to us before that moment.  And those reactions of that moment can stay with us long after the particular words have been forgotten.  The reactions and the words are not identical.

The written word is vertical magic.  It takes shape somewhere between a a page and us.  Its reality is neither there nor here, but always in between.  Its existence is neither physical nor mental, but somewhere betwixt.  This is by no means a new observation, although I am phrasing it in my own simple way (in my own written words -- which call forth a reaction in your mind). 

As we hunch over our screens -- or, to summon a happier image, as we are lost in a good book -- we can forget the wonder of words.

Books have their own vertical magic.  Where exactly is a book?  Is it really in your hands, on your nightstand, on your shelf?  No doubt there is a copy of the book wherever you left it (unless you have kids).  But is that really the book?  Is the copy of the book in your home more real than the one in your neighbor's home?  Which of the two is the book?  Neither, of course.  And if what you have is a copy, where is the original?  In French, a copy of a book is called an exemplaire.  But where is the original that such an exemplaire exemplifies?  There is no such thing, at least no such physical thing. 

If you say that you have "read the book," do you mean that you have read your own copy?  No, you mean that you have read the book.  The book does not exist in your hand, any more than its words exist on the page.  It is somewhere else.  It is in between.  Like words, books exist in between the physical world and the mental world, not fully in either, connecting the two.

Let us imagine that Plotinus Press has published an illustrated edition of five thousand of the fine children's novel Pause for Fortinbras.  Which one of those five thousand is the book?  None of them.  If by some mischance all five thousand copies of the book were to be physically destroyed, we wouldn’t want to say that the book itself had ceased to exist.  If your children lost their copy of the book, but you had read it first, you would still say that you had "read the book." 

In my work as a historian, I read publications that were, at one time or another, banned or censored.  A book that was banned or even pulped or burned is still a book.  The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz wrote that it was "on the other side of the fire."  When we say that a book was censored, we are saying an interesting thing.  Maybe every single copy that was published was subject to censorship.  Perhaps there are thick black lines, or intrusive citations of a law, where some of the words should be.  But the book that was censored still exists somewhere.  We do not doubt that, even if we cannot see it or hold it.

A written word has vertical magic.  And when we write the word book we are referring to something that also has vertical magic.  And so the magic accumulates.  We can do a lot with words, and they can do a lot with us.

Books and words also have another kind of magic, a horizontal one, which links them together, and us with one another.  That will be my subject tomorrow and the day after.  For now, I wish you a day when words seem wonderful.  They are.