“Here alone I in books formd of metals
Have written the secrets of wisdom
The secrets of dark contemplation”
William Blake Urizen Chap. II
A student recently told me that he didn’t read books because he liked to think for himself.
My instinctive reaction (other than silently to gag) was to remark that this is precisely the reason I do read books – books are not a drain on our powers of original thought, they are necessary fuel to it. After all, it is not as though in not reading books you remove yourself utterly from corrupting external influence. More likely you make yourself vulnerable to it.
This seems obvious to me. Self-evident, even. But I acknowledge that it is hard to see around the back of your own sense of identity, to see it as contingent, especially if it derives from common values, and I suppose I should formally acknowledge that you do not have to have read, for example, Blake’s prophetic books in order to function well as an adult. Nor, I assume, do you have to have read the countless, the innumerable, the nameless and unnameable books that I have myself not read. You do not need to visit every field and village to be from a place.
But reading is the great technology of our civilisation. Blake in the quotation above talks of Urizen writing in metal books and it is a strange image, but Blake was also a printer, a maker of books, and books to him were objects forged from impressions taken of metal typeface. Urizen – not to go too deeply into Blake’s anti-Bible, his curious personal mythology – creates the universe not from nothing but from everything. He separates himself out from the multi-form and Protean ‘Eternals’ in order to develop better his own sense of self, and from that Ur-separation flows a domino-stream of further separations, mind from matter, light from dark, joy from pain and so on down and down the chain of being to us, who, locked into our sullen separateness, necessarily perceive the universe as characterised by disorder and imbalance.
Look at a library shelf and you see a myriad separate little worlds, further and further and finer and finer divisions of Everything, etched on metal books, as Blake would have it. But books are our way back to that fuller understanding, at least in theory; each book, if you like, is a step on a ladder to some place of greater vantage. Blake did not have much time for Newton, who numbered in his infernal trinity alongside John Locke and Francis Bacon and who shared certain attributes (the compass for example) with Urizen, the great divider (“art is the tree of life; science is the tree of death”); but he would surely have acknowledged the truth of Newton’s assertion, that if he had seen further than other men, it was because he was stood on the shoulders of giants.