BOOKS ARE a way of learning about the world without having to do the things you have to do when you learn about the world in other ways. Everything tells you about the world, which is Everything; but books are a special way of telling you.
A little boy can think of what happened two hundred years ago; and he can be happy, and more himself, doing so. And ask yourself, where are you going to learn about how people felt long ago unless you go to books? And if there's some strange place, a book can tell you of it, even though you may go to this place later.
Do you know, James, that all your feelings could be put into a book and printed in thousands of copies? What's more, your feelings, if truly written about, would be of value to ever so many people; there's really no limit to the number of people who could get something important for themselves in reading about the feelings of James Nash. You can have things happen inside you by reading about Indians or Englishmen or brave women or forests or crowds of people long ago; and all these look quite strange to you; but if the feelings you had this morning, James, and at all other times, were described, put in a book, people might think, "How strange all this is." Still, if the book were written truly and rightly, your feelings would be added to their feelings.
That's what books do: they add feelings to other feelings. Every time you read a book, someone else's feelings meet yours, and mix with yours. You are always being affected by other people's feelings; but books are the big way of bringing to a person the feelings he might never have otherwise.
Only in a book can you feel America all at once and in some detail. A person has feelings, and he knows a lot about America, and he writes his feelings down; and he says to other persons, "Come, let your feelings meet mine; if they do, good things will happen." If he doesn't believe this, he shouldn't write a book.
Can you think of anything, James, that can't get into a book? Now lots of things haven't got into books, but that doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't. People are likely any day to get new thoughts or happenings into a book.
If you read a book about the sea, it can go pretty far in making you feel the mist on the water, the motion of the ship, the dark look of the sky, the wind that soon may be rising, the deck, and what's underneath the deck. I'm thinking now of a ship in the Pacific about 1780. How awful it would be if no one could read about the way ships were in the Pacific in the year 1780! You may never have missed this before, or thought of missing it: but, James, how would you feel if you knew 1780 and ships on the Pacific in twilight in 1780 could never, never be written about; never, never be put in a book; never, never be felt in print? You'd say, "How very bad." It is good that ships on the Pacific in 1780 need never be forgot, can be thought about, can be felt.
Then there can be books about cities and little girls and old women and electricity and the future and love and you (there can be such a book) and worries and love again and America and all your friends. All these books would consist of words. Words are a way of feeling things without having those things under your nose. Words put together can tell you about the world no end. Even a bad book tells you about the world. It may not do right to the world, but in it you can find out about the world anyway. You just have to use your time the best way.
Some people can't read books. It's likely that people who can't read books can't have their feelings affected much by other persons, either, and, for that matter, by things generally. These people think that they have "themselves," so why do they have to read books very deeply? They are wrong, because if they know how to read books, their "selves" are a lot more. Many of these people don't know they don't like really to read books.
They don't like to, though. When they do read, it's not because they want their feelings to be affected by other feelings, but because they can seem important to themselves and other people. They don't give themselves to print; they let print do something to their minds, but they don't let print go very deep. That would mean other people's feelings were allowed to be like their own.
Books tell us really the same kind of thing that walking on the street does. We feel and learn when we walk on the street; we also feel and learn when we read books. We want things to happen to our minds. When we read books our minds "go out" more, work more, to have things happen to us. Therefore, if we can't read books, we don't like life, either. This is so because life in its widest form and its deepest comes to a person when he is able to feel life through words. Words, when they're good, don't make life duller; not at all. They show how life is good and great because it can have excitement while it is spoken of more truly than is the usual case. Books can show that life can make sense, while it makes you wonder, and think, and hope, and see what is right under your feet.
Copyright © 1971 by Eli Siegel
New Introduction and Drawings © 2003 by Definition Press