When I think of books, I imagine leather spines, cream-colored pages, fraying ribbon markers enticing the viewer to examine what treasured words they pinpoint, and vast libraries with row upon row of illustrious volumes patiently awaiting an eager reader to give them the love and care they desire: to be opened, read, and cherished. I never considered that a book could reach beyond pen and paper to the incredibly broad concept of the world at large, a point made by Jorge Luis Borges in his article “On the Cult of Books.”
How could the world be considered a book?
Borges understands the entire world as a manuscript, much like an artist views it as a canvas. In one of the most striking paragraphs in his essay, Borges quotes Sir Thomas Browne, who claims that “there are two Books from whence [he] collected [his] Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of His servant Nature, that universal and publick Maunscript that lies expans’d unto the Eyes of all” (4). Francis Bacon offers a similar sentiment, believing that, between the two books, readers might discover God. Both authors seem to advocate the role of nature as a type of literary supplement to Sacred Scripture, one of the oldest books still presently studied.
In reality, nature and literature are inseparable. From a logical standpoint, without the world, there would be nothing to write about. The activity of mankind creates the backdrop for elaborate fictional plots and intricacies, dynamic characters and gripping messages. Yet, on the other hand, the world itself is the epitome of all stories, all ideas…all books. In a small sense, a single book is merely a few short paragraphs of the massive volume called Earth. Nature tells its own story, one that no author or artist can ever perfectly capture, but that is visible to all, especially to those without the privilege of libraries or literacy. Through a religious standpoint in their writings, Bacon and Browne each tried to explain that God gives his readers multiple ways to come to know him. Both the written masterpiece passed down through the ages and the ever-changing landscape of creatures and creation reflect his glory and his love.
The world is a visual, real experience of the stories we idolize in literature. Consider the reasons why anyone would open that ragged leather book with the fraying ribbon; are they seeking enjoyment? Knowledge? Peace? Answers to an intimate question? All of these questions are connected to nature. Books serve as guides and prototypes for real scenarios in the world, and the world models people and ideas that often appear in literature. How is the world considered a book? Quite simply, nature acts as an open, interactive dialogue with its viewers, giving knowledge and enjoyment. It teaches, it evokes emotion, and it is subjected to incredible interpretation. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate our childhood notions of literature when we imagine books!
“On the Cult of Books.” Jorge Luis Borges, 1951.