Books as a Mode of Cultural and
Historical Memory

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Before I read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time two weeks ago, I began by reading the introduction and the supplementary texts appended to the sixtieth anniversary edition. Upon reading the epigraph to these readings, taken from the novel itself, I was immediately struck by the idea of books as a tool or vehicle for cultural and historical memory. “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us,” says Professor Faber to our hero, Guy Montag.

First, if one knows anything about the first “texts” written and etched into clay tablets in ancient times, one knows that these “texts” were lists and records concerning the keeping of accounts for kingdoms, an early form of bookkeeping for tracking transactions and inventory. Eventually, the deeds and decrees of kings became recorded as well. Then, naturally, to ensure the oral traditions of a people were kept alive for new generations, the stories and myths of these peoples were written down, and became what we would call “a literary text.” This, then, became one among many modes of cultural and historical transmission of ideas, facts, and beliefs. It is not my intention to map a linear path from ancient written records and myths to the electronic texts and books we pen today. Rather, it is my intention to speak of the value of books as a mode of cultural and historical memory.
Books, simply speaking, are works of art. They show us to ourselves, as readers and as writers. It fathoms me the connections I make and the things I think about, feel so deeply about, and then write about, and the source of all this is books, the literature of all kinds that I have been voraciously engaged in reading for the last twenty years. For it is coming upon twenty years now that I fell in love with literature and knew I had no choice but to pursue it as a college major and become a writer.

Books not only teach us about ourselves, but about history, about the people who have made history with their own blood, sweat, and tears, and their own deeply held beliefs, values, and ideas. Books are read for pleasure and for information, if not for both. Nonfiction may have as its central purpose the goal of disseminating knowledge and information, but the writer of nonfiction hopes, just as a novelist does, that we will read his books with a certain amount of pleasure as well, not just in response to how he weaves the narrative he sets down but also in response to the information we learn from his text.

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The “magic” in books is not so much the information we learn, whether facts or abstract concepts, but the bridge that is built between us and the text, the readers and the writer, the connection that pivots on the fact of our humanity, of what it means to be human. Fiction reveals us to ourselves as individuals. We may read a book whose main character acts, thinks, and speaks as if he is our mirror image, our very own doppelganger, and this is the magic and beauty of the book, for this resemblance ignites a connection between us and the character, us and the book, us and the writer. But, as with nonfiction, which records the details of history and the biographical lives of great individuals who have shaped it, fiction also illuminates human character, the psychology of man, on an individual and a broader level, on the level of universal human experience. We may all look, speak, and act differently on the surface, but our needs, desires, and motivations are all natural and essentially the same underneath; it is our actions that express these basic human traits and individualize us to a great degree, creating our character in the sight of others, whether it be indifferent, good, or evil.

Beyond the fact that books reveal us to ourselves as individuals and delineate the profound truth that we are all the same on the human level, uniting us a race that shares common thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and passions despite our physical appearances, books are the repositories of our past history as a race, depicting our struggles for freedom and redemption, for progress and equality, for innovation and success, for love and power, for pleasure and happiness against the suffering and pain, all of which emphasize the agony and the ecstasy of what it means to be a human being and part of something infinitely bigger and greater than ourselves, the human race itself always in motion in the flux of creation.

Books are tools of cultural memory, wherein we find the story and history of our many multifaceted traditions and innovations as a race (always searching, questioning, in conflict with ourselves, with others, with Nature, society, and the cosmos, and the ever-elusive God that may or may not be behind it, the ground upon which all this restlessly moves) and as a people of a multitude of nations who have gone to war with others and with ourselves. Books are vehicles of our cultural and historical memory because they bring the progress and struggles of the human race as a people and as individuals out of the dark, shrouded past into the present, and go with us into the future, acting as signposts and torches which mark and signal our path away from the past toward a future not yet fully conceived or born, but nevertheless which is built from the glorious and devastating events that altered our progress as a race definitively and irrevocably.

Books speak. They contain the living voices of individuals from the past telling us who we are as human beings, individually and as a race, by showing us in great meditative detail who they were as individuals and who we were as a race in times long gone. The depths of the events and peoples of the past can only be truly plumbed by preserving the art and literature of those times, which preserves our cultures, our histories, and ourselves as a species, and most of all, as human beings, with similar thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and passions that make us one family.

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