In his essay “On the Cult of Books,” Jorge Borges points us to Plato for one conception of the book. Specifically, Borges writes, “[Plato] said that books are like the painted figures ‘that seem to be alive, but do not answer a word to the questions they are asked’” (359).
Maybe Plato is correct here, but does this diminish the value of the book? Not in the manner that Borges presents the quote at the very least. Borges ties this conception of books to the moral position of antiquity that the oral word is superior to the written. It is well known that Socrates himself never wrote any treatises, and it was common for orators in the past to memorize myths as a means of entertainment and moral teaching. The quote above seems to support the orator over the scribe, but the sentence that Plato follows with the quotation we are examining undermines this position: “And the same may be said of speeches” (1135) Plato was not a critic of books and a supporter of the oral tradition. The context of the dialogue is concerned about getting to truth. A memorized speech is no more equipped to answer questions posed to it than a book.
There is value, however, in both the written word and the speech. The book is given value in that we can interact with the content. The book acts as inspiration for questions even if it cannot answer them like a person with which we are in discussion. The book brings us wonder. It gives us ideals with which to strive and vices to avoid. Books are themselves dialogues between other books in that they challenge one another on truth, beauty, morality, and more. It is not just the explicit content that matters either. The numerous implicit messages in books serve as inspiration for us to question our perceived realities. The book acts as our ancient Muse.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.
Plato. “Phaedrus.” The Dialogues of Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Random House, 1937, 1078-1138.
3 thoughts on “Our Muse, the Book”
Nick, I really like your idea of the book itself as a dialogue, and your explanation of what Plato means with this sentiment, applied to both books and speeches. It is especially interesting to consider a face-to-face translation as a book with even more layers of dialogue – with itself, between cultures, between author and translator, with the reader, etc.
I find Plato’s argument is further enhanced by the fact that most people read his dialogues in the form of a text. I agree that his point was that questions should be answered, not just asked, just like you said, and that Plato fails to recognize implicit messages within the context of the book. Honestly, I think Plato mainly values explicit clarity, even if it ends up being presented in a dry manner, over the often more colorful implicit answers that literary works provide in their texts, even if more people would be reached in this way.
The argument you have made when comparing a book against Plato’s notion of a book highlights the importance of the imagination in a book. Plato’s theory constricts the large spectrum of what a book can be beyond the physical attributes. The readers’ mind has to be immensely involved to imagine the wonder beyond the words on the book. It is not only literature on paper but a creation of someone else’s being being shared with the world.