Books and Belief

I spent this Sunday at an Easter service and was thinking about the relationship between books and belief. My daughter pointed at someone from the choir and asked if he was an angel. I said no. She asked how he knew all the words to the service. I said that was a long story. But the short answer was: books. Not in the sense of reading and memorizing, but in the sense of, How do we all know this story 2,000 years after it happened? I’m one of those people who is consistently enthralled by the fact that stories persist. Maybe it’s because culture seems so perishable these days, but I have a weakness for duration.

Books of course are not the only way that stories survive a long time. Indeed, they can be a way of killing off the cultural relevance of something as it migrates onto the page and away from social rituals. Religious services are interesting because of the way they mix books with other ritualistic practices — the way belief is a function of a particular kind of reading, that of reading aloud, which blends into song, procession, and in some services, dance.

Every time I’m in a setting where something has been repeated for so many years I can’t resist running the thought experiment of whether electronic media will make such durability harder. It’s an old cliché (books stable, electronics volatile), but the point is not that it’s true, but what if it were true, what if we could make it happen? What would it be like to live in a world without such absurdly durable social practices? What would it be like to inhabit a culture where forms and practices only lasted a generation or two? Would it be liberating or incredibly sad? Can there be belief without time?

Part of the debate about the future of books and reading is about this issue of time, cultural memory, and belief. Like many others, I worry that new forms of mediation will make cultural persistence less reliable than it has been in the past and also less common. I worry about the answer to my daughter’s question: how does he know all the words? How will we know the words that have come before us? Will electronic forms be as reliable as the printed book, not only in preserving these things, but also in making them come alive, making them available for belief?

And then I wonder why I’m so wedded to history, to a sense of meaning located in the sum total of all that human beings have thought and made. Is there some desire there, some quest to know one’s species? It’s an interesting swerve of belief — not as the lever that allows you to believe in something beyond yourself (the divine), but as that which makes it possible to believe in the value of your own presence, which, like books, seems somewhat fragile these days.

Are books a safeguard against giving-up on the human?