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.