The Embrace of Books
There’s magic in the written word. In an instant, you are transported. I grew up beside Harry, Ron, and Hermione, racing through the halls of Hogwarts. When the One Ring needed to be dropped in Mt. Doom, I volunteered beside Frodo. I’ve fought alongside the Mockingjay. My entire life has been lived in side-quests hidden in the pages of another person’s mind. Fiction held me, and I never doubted the love I felt for those characters. Fantasy bears pathos with ease.
On the other hand, nonfiction has a bad habit outside of biographies of being objective to the point of apathy. Tragedies become facts. Facts may be filed away. Nodded at and recited with idle thoughts. Such objectivism has a purpose. It allows us to acquire information which might otherwise shatter us. However, that same distance may be used to ignore the grievances of others. That ignorance may be used to repeat the horrors of the past. As they say, we are doomed to replicate what has been if we are unaware or unwilling to bear the truth of it.
This, more than anything, is why I find anthropological ethnographies so important. Cultural anthropologies – or the biological who enjoy the multi-disciplinary approach – aim to present fact with the emotive. Personalizing those we would otherwise not meet. Anthropologists are not the only ones to write this way. In fact, the first one I read was written by a journalist – Eduardo Galeano.
While sensationalism storms to mind with most newspapers these days, Galeano used writing to reinvigorate cultural memory. He believed the Americas – specifically Latin America – was obsessed with forgetting. Forgetting – in the end – solves nothing. My first experience of Galeano’s writing was in his work – The Book of Embraces. Parts of it were semi-autobiographical while others mixed dreams, reports, and oddities. Though I enjoyed his musings on his life in Uruguay, it was his repetitions of others lives which I found most astounding.
One story, in particular, sticks in my mind. A pair of twin brothers fought side by side in a rebel conflict. Within their battalion was a photographer. After a battle, the photographer moved around the zone taking pictures and looking for the brothers. The photographer found the two together. One brother leaned against a bullet-ridden wall holding the other in his arms. Their guns were abandoned at their feet in the shape of a cross. It was an ideal shot – a summation of the conflict, but the photographer couldn’t take the picture. One brother likely dead, the other stared blankly ahead. In simple, undeniable facts – Galeano told the anecdote far better than I could herein repeat it, but I saw the twins in my head. I saw the photographer checking the light, lining up the shot, and failing to take the photograph.
Galeano didn’t have to tell me the moral. This wasn’t a parable that needed to be spoken for. This was the photograph. A picture might have projected the image, but its lack thereof embedded the truth within my mind where it will likely remain until my death. There are worlds too powerful to share, but we muscle through and find a way to bear them. Those moments – the ones we dare not photograph – they exist in books. No movie can capture them in full. No picture can convey the third party – the photographer – so well. For in reading Galeano’s words, I bore the agony of all three men: the agony of death, the agony of dying, and the agony of futility. How better could I know this conflict than with that pain? How better could I foster empathy for those afflicted save with that pain? And it was a book that gave that pain to me.
The world is a strange place. One lifetime is not enough to capture all there is to see, to do, to read, but still, we try. Still, we write more. Books preserve lives. They hold them for view and broaden the minds of those who read them. I have lived more lives than I shall ever lose to death in books, and each face I see there is a face I see in the world. They are an inspiration for sonder. Seven billion lives exist on Earth as complex as either of us, dear reader. If a book can remind you of that, it has given you the world.