About a year ago, I had my appendix removed, well after the age when such operations are most common. It gave me the opportunity to reflect a bit on what I did as an editor and on what recently had been done to me. At that point, I was deep into editing a 500-page manuscript with a lengthy appendix that I had decided could easily be cut.
As I lay in my hospital bed, I realized that I had been edited in something of the same way—the appendix was unnecessary. But I then realized something else, when my bad back made it difficult for me to find a comfortable position in the bed. Books also have spines. I began to see a much larger picture.
Books have spines, headbands, prefaces (and sometimes postfaces), appendices, running feet, footnotes, headnotes, shoulders; we speak of the body of the book and we bind the pages in signatures. Some have thumb indexes. All have heads (the top edge of the boards used to bind the pages) and tails (the bottom edge of the boards). Chapters have heads and subheads. What is most important is that imprinted on the body of the book are characters, and that these characters, the body with its spine, head, and tail, are then placed between covers, like a child being put to bed. We clothe it in a jacket often containing the image of the author. Each book has a publication date, like a birthday, and the production time for a typical book is around nine months.
Some of the terminology used to describe the book is no doubt the consequence of finding a vocabulary that was simply ready to hand; but regardless of the origin, the result is that this vocabulary describes a unique cultural object in which, for whatever reason, we have imprinted and externalized some image of our own construction. Perhaps this is the residue from the fact that the first books were printed on and bound in animal skin of one sort or another. Books are close to us. They are in some ways a little man or woman with things to say, evoke, caution, or [End Page 209] denounce. A homunculus that sits quietly until called upon. They are not only something into which we pour our fantasies and fears. They are not then only vehicles for the transmission of information. They have lives of their own throughout the ages. They are not the possession of a single person. They lead us to other people, to God, to nation, to contemplation or action, to hate, love, amusement, or despair. They connect us to generations removed by a thousand generations; they connect us to a future we can barely imagine.
We found a way of clothing something about ourselves in this flesh of paper. In considering this aspect of the book, on my hospital bed, I thought of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” in which the fantastic machine writes each man’s sentence on his skin; for some reason, I connected this with the ritual of circumcision and what God said about it, “My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:13). This covenant is a sentence, an injunction, a mystery we still do not fully comprehend. It is a blessing and a curse. It cuts into us at the point where the flesh and the word become one. It is in us, on us, outside us at the same time.
The characters, of which words are made, are not a graven image but engraved images made originally with an instrument that in Greek was called a kharakter. The little book was originally bound in the skin of a lamb, goat, or calf—all kosher animals—and the best vellum was so-called “uterine” vellum made of stillborn or unborn animals. Interestingly, one of the oldest materials with which to make condoms was called lambskin, though made not of the skin of the lamb but of its intestines. That which received the life-giving ejection of the body was also used to wrap the life-giving ejection of the mind. The character of each...