A dialogue: Book as lever, book as sextant, book as sandcastle

All I want is book upon which I can stand… can take a stand… can stand firm. Doesn’t matter if the book be thick or thin, old or new, I just want something I can believe in, that can offer me a solid position from which to view the world.

You remind me of Archimedes. ‘Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth.’ A book is not a lever.

No, a book is not a lever. It does not move the earth. A book is a sextant. It is a tool, for measuring the earth.

Either way, it is a ludicrous proposition. Archimedes! How I would have loved to be there, to hear him say that. Does he realise the idiocy of what he says? How can he not? Where might this firm place be situated? You can no more move the earth from a firm place on the earth than the good Baron can pull himself out of the swamp by his hair.

The Bellman did it.

The Bellman did it to his crew members. Where is your Bellman, pray tell?

My Bellman shall be a book.

Its finger entwined in your hair? Very nice. Give me an example.

‘The Rest is Noise’ by Alex Ross. When I read that book, I feel that, for the moment, I have a sure perspective on Twentieth Century classical music. I used to think the same of Clive James’s ‘Cultural Amnesia’, in terms of various thinkers of that same century, but then I read this post, and now I find it hard to take the same stance.

If your lever is made of rotten wood, you will find yourself sat down hard upon your firm spot pretty sharpish, and then you’ll know how exactly how firm it is. In any case, your firm spot smells rather like the Baron’s swamp. “For the moment” you say. As if the esteemed Mr Ross’s view of Twentieth Century classical music can lay claim to the dry land of meaning when the water is already lapping about his ankles.

I’m confused. Are you trying to make a point about climate change?

Climate change is merely the acceleration of the inevitable. 

Oh. Do you like making sandcastles?

Now then. Sandcastles. You’ve got me there. Do go on.

I love making sandcastles. Love the equipment, the buckets and spades; love the setting, the sun and wind and bare feet in the sand; love the physical labour, when you could be lying there reading a book, and the camaraderie, of making plans and allocating tasks. But the bit I love the most is when the tide comes in, and the walls and channels you have constructed, all to defend the inner-most keep, with its whimsical decoration of shells and seaweed and stray feathers, are starting to fail – to fall in (the walls) and fill in (the channels), the walls and channels cancelling each other out, splitting the difference, reverting to mere beach – and you start to work harder, to patch up and rebuild the walls, dredge and bail the channels, taking the few seconds of respite between each wave to effect what remedies you can. That’s the most wonderful part. The castle is going to be destroyed, and it is because you know it is going to be destroyed that you redouble your efforts. It is because you know it is going to be destroyed that you build it in the first place. Do you see?

You’ve gone quiet.

I’m thinking.


I’m thinking how, sometimes, when you go back to the beach the next day, there’s the faintest bump where your castle stood. Sometimes a castle, or some part of it, survives more than one tide.

Ah, well. That would be too much to ask.

And you’re saying a book is like a sandcastle?

Or perhaps that the certainty I hope for when I open a book is the sandcastle. I know any meaning I take from it is doomed to oblivion – the tide is always coming in; if it’s not, it’s going out in preparation – but it’s those few precious minutes, when you redouble your efforts in shoring up those fast-dissolving walls and channels, that makes it worthwhile.

All for the sake of a few shells and feathers? 

Perhaps the shells and feathers are there for the sake of the walls and channels.

Perhaps. Perhaps you’re right.

You think so?

Well, the fact that you’re speaking in plain text, and I in italics, would suggest that I am supposed to defer to you, bow out and gracefully allow you the last word.

Perhaps you’re right.

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