It’s just a book. Really. Look at it sometime without all the funny numbers and footnotes we’ve added, and it’s just a book, or a bunch of books collected into one big book. It’s chock full of stories, poems, historical documents, and other things, some arcane, some obvious. There are things in there that make a lot of sense, and other things you can mull over for days and still not understand, for a variety of reasons. But then, it’s not really just a book, is it?
I remember going to the Art Gallery of Ontario and looking at paintings in various styles by various artists who painted across various time periods. There was one, though, that captured my imagination. It was a Cubist depiction of Christ being taken down from the cross, dead as a doornail. I sat in front of it on a stool with no back, hunched over, just staring at it, taking it all in. It felt like I sat there for an age, though it was probably only fifteen minutes or so, and though I’m no great lover of painting as an art, the painting still affected me. It was a combination of the subject matter and the style and the colours, though none of that really matters. To me, it was much more than just a painting. It was a look into something completely other, something so different from my view of reality that it almost entranced me.
I can’t really deconstruct it. Or I could, I suppose, talk about the thickness of the brush strokes, the colour composition, the contrasting viewpoints, the fresh take on an ancient theme, the name of the artist, his or her body of work, the chosen themes, and on and on. I imagine I could write a very thick book about those things, all because I very much enjoyed the painting, and because it seems somehow important to me.
You could read my book (although I very much doubt you would unless you’re a close friend and I gave you a free copy to read in your copious spare time) and in the end gather a great number of facts about both the painting and about me. You could probably construct a pretty accurate profile of me as a person and author. You could, if you wanted to, make an index of all the things I wrote, so you could cross-reference them at will.
But in the end, you would have merely read a book about a painting, which is hardly a substitute for actually going to the gallery and sitting in front of it for fifteen minutes. You might find that those fifteen minutes, looking at a canvas, just taking it in, would be more informative, more gut-level than poring through my textbook about it for hours. (I picture myself writing a very long book.)
Or maybe not. That’s the thing about experiences. You might take a glance at the work, maybe even sit there for fifteen minutes, and wonder what I’d been smoking. You might not see what I saw in the work at all. You might instead find great enjoyment in a Pollock.
There’s still a chance you might agree with me. And though this isn’t a particularly profound experience, certainly not worth all that I’ve written about it, you might see what I saw. Maybe even more than I saw; who knows? But we could grab a beer afterwards and talk about it. You could explain to me this and that, and I could explain to you another thing, because we both saw the painting and we both had thus and such a reaction. We could write long books about the painting and compare indexes later, to the amusement and consternation of our friends, who would probably be looking up numbers for psychologists.
I feel it’s the same way with that book I was talking about. You might read it and see just a book. Or you might break it down and see some words. But if you read it and it did nothing for you, what’s the point of us discussing it? What would be the point of you reading my much bigger book about the book?
There’s a point here. Imagine going through a book about a painting. What’s the point, if you’ve never seen the painting? It wouldn’t make sense. It would be a lot of writing about something you don’t think is a big deal.
For a painting, that’s okay. I mean, we’ve all got our own taste, and that’s fine and good. But this book, you should read it. You should probably skip all those other books about the book and just read the book. You might not see the big deal, though I’ll politely disagree with you, but you should still read it.
Maybe afterward we can go out for a beer and talk about it, even if our friends start looking up the numbers for psychologists.