On Being Socially Distant--Literarily Intimate
This abrupt cessation of the normal dealings of human life, while unconducive to the earnings-reports for which we anxiously wait, or the “bull” markets atop which (as recently as one month ago!) we joyously rode, or even the economy in general, not only here but abroad, to whose continued ascent all of our suddenly-bleak futures were once auspiciously pegged, has been nothing short of a boon for the literary mind.
A boon, says he? Unequivocally so.
This rejoinder, often incredulously and, if the emotions permit, exasperatedly voiced, isn’t one with which I’m unfamiliar. So staunch an advocate for books am I, that I’ve confronted it time and again, though, admittedly, always in fairer weather than is this. Indeed, it’s one for which I’ve prepared myself, at a time when preparations of every sort seem tragically to have renounced their supposed value and merit. The question, then, in response to this sanguine outlook of which I’ve made myself so untimely a promulgator, is how one could see in the shroud of this socio-economic woe a ray of encouraging light? How could one, enduring as he is this precipitous drop not only in wealth, but in vitality and in life (to which the former, despite its luster, offers no recompense), remain so outwardly undismayed?
What conceivable good, you might ask, is to be reaped from so unpropitious and unprofitable a time? The literary mind, after all, is nothing more than an inconsequential whim, much more so when seen in the midst of so acutely painful an economic atmosphere such as this—a climate, dropping before us the thick and grayish clouds of penury and want, through whose stormy weather we’ve yet to begin our navigation and trek. In light of this, the literary mind is but an ornament to the eloquent, an artificial sparkle in a deeply darkened place. Thus, our nation of materialists and capitalists haven’t time to give it heed, and we overlook its flame.
It might be said, at the risk of inviting the wrath of the currently rueful stock-jobber (for whose ordinarily detestable cupidity we have, at least on this occasion, much sympathy in our hearts) that the literary mind’s growth is one born of an inverse proportion; as man’s focus on his wealth wanes, that on his words expands. The diminution of the one, you might say, is the very stimulant—often suppressed by the busy commerce with which every part of us is normally engaged—by which the other’s dilated. The quest for outward profit stifles the cultivation of the inner self. The strength of our wallet, in many cases, enfeebles that of our brain.
Accepting, then, the ire to which I seem rather flippantly to have exposed myself, I must say that there’s never been a better time to re-acquaint oneself with books. Books are the relish of the literary mind. They are the healthful sustenance by which the mental faculties are cultivated and grown. Their importance, in my opinion, has never been of greater moment than it is right now. It’s with reference to them, and to them alone, that we will, in this moment of acute despondency, isolation, and economic hurt, pacify our quivering nerve and re-build our ship of state. It’s with the consumption of their pages that we’ll calm the unease by which we’ve been raddled and satiate the hungry rumblings of our famished mind. Better still, it will be with a book in one hand and a redoubtable spirit in the other that we’ll succeed in inuring ourselves to the many challenges into whose perilous uncertainty we advance to step.
The public service announcements to which we’ve been daily treated would have us “socially distance” ourselves as we go about our days. One could, for a minute, consider the novelty of so alien a phrase. Shorn of almost all hint of euphemism (at which, through its years of application and practice, our government has become rather cunningly adept) this phrase—now the misanthrope’s mantra from every point of the globe, spanning America and Asia, and every pestiferous continent in between—is as explicit as it seems. The only subtlety is that the term “social” conceals the tactile, physical act of which you should no longer be a participant. If you can be social from afar, so be it. All the better for you. That which is to be avoided by the “socially distancing” of oneself from another is the more intimate and physical approximations with which we come into contact hundreds or thousands of times on any given day.
That said, however prophylactic this “social distancing” campaign may be, our instincts, in their response to it, avail us very little. For so affable and gregarious a species as is ours, the greatest of great apes to whom solitude is not only a highly unattractive, but a fundamentally unnatural idea, such a task is not one to whose adoption we’re especially responsive.
Distance is a concept to which our loving, embracing, interacting, and caressing nature is totally antithetical. It’s a way of life—one might even call it, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short—from which, in the evolutionary descent from Hobbes, we’ve gaily emerged. It’s a state of being to which, thanks to the comfortable civility and refinement in which we find ourselves presently dressed, we’re all very much ill-disposed.
To achieve it, then, in practice, one must observe at one time the society of no greater than ten people, from whom one must stand no fewer than six feet away. One must immure himself in commodious lodgings distant from his fellow men. Intimacy, it appears, is to be sacrificed for the perpetuation of our species and of our lives. Paradoxically, that upon which man’s continued existence is dependent is not his proximity to his fellow man, but rather his distance from his lover, parent, colleague, or friend. A swifter volte-face has never been seen. Man is being atomized against his will as he retreats further from society with each passing day.
It’s my contention that something, if not someone, must fill the yawning gap left in the wake of this mutual departure. We’re not all equipped for a life lived in the vacuity of our own thought. Such a well, however deep, is unaccommodating to the tranquility and inner peace of which we’re in so desperate a need. Rather, our distance from man to man is a hole, increasingly widening, into which the healthy plug, the fibrous clot, the endless breadth of books ought to be placed. Books are the anchoring presence after whose sturdiness and weight we all seek. Books are the elevating discourse, the sublunary projectiles upon whose wings we fly above our anxieties and cares.
Above all else, remember this: let yourself not be lonely. Find at your bedside a book. Proceed without caution to take it in hand. Permit your eyes to examine its every corner, and your thoughts to predict the passages to whose access you’ll soon grant their stare. Dust off its ancient jacket, upon which—as the sensitivity of your tickled nose will soon inform you—a film of neglect has since fallen. Shake off this cloak of disuse, this august layer of maturity and long age by which, with even the slightest inhalation, you’ll be brought very nearly to the precipice of a sneeze, and return to it the heartbeat of which it’s been so idly dispossessed. Reupholster its leafs with the moisture of your palms and inspire it with the vivacity of your gaze. Transfer to its contents your attention and your spirit, and, in quick time, it will return to you its own. This relationship, between man and book, is one of a mutual gain and symbiosis. It’s a fraternity by which—with the enjoyment of each other’s penetration—each is all the more completed and filled. The book will absorb from you the vitality of your attention by which, for years to come, it’ll persist in remaining alive. After all, it’s as dependent on you, as you are on it. And from the book, you’ll inherit the abiding wisdom of the greatest thinkers, from whom, despite the conceit of our own cleverness, so much is yet to be learned. You’ll imbibe, quite without knowing it, the brilliant whispers and the prudent insights by which it’s every page is saturated.
One need not, in the transfer of his attention from society toward his books, remove from his affinities his real and corporeal friends. For all time, they’ll exist, and in their company, we’ll stay. They need not, nor will they ever be entirely supplanted by some lines of ink blotted upon a page. But, at a time such as this, when the terrors of a disease imperil his very future, and the exigencies of a government restrain his every move, books enter into the void as the crucial supplements to a flourishing, discursive, and well-lived life. Even in the midst of a market crash, with a recovery feeling at once distant and uncertain, books will be there. They are, and have always been, the only commodity of enduring worth in which we’ve profitably invested. Their interest is immeasurable, and their friendship, impenetrable.