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How Will We Kiss?

The vaguely remembered book
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How Will We Kiss?

By Chris Bucci

Try to imagine a world where books no longer exist. That’s what the organizers of The Scream Literary Festival want us to do. How will we read? How will we think? How will we decorate our shelves? How will we kiss?

As a kid I read one of those Raiders of the Lost Ark spin-off books. I don’t remember any of it except for the part where Indy kisses the beautiful young heroine. Her tongue, it seems, found the back of his mouth and then stroked its roof before heading home. Perhaps I didn’t remember it well back then either, because my first victim, who seemed willing initially, quickly changed her mind. Good thing she didn’t read or I would have, quite literally, had a book in the head.

It is possible that the death of the book isn’t so bad after all: fewer bad kisses and fewer concussions.

People have been bemoaning the death of book culture for years now – apparently there is this thing called television (and radio, and moving pictures) – and taking every opportunity to write about its undoing, while the even more earnest literary types continue to make claims about its indispensable place in culture. I’m among those who have been heard to repeat the trite observation that I love books, the physical object of the thing, the thing to hold and pore over, and to scan the spines of on actual wooden book shelves (then again I still buy CDs). I’m right there with Walter Benjamin, when he says in “Unpacking my Library”:

I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that has been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness…

So I join him, happily. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

In spite of all of us, in spite of all our love for the objects of desire, the strange people at the Scream claim that “the book is dead and we’re inviting all of its friends to help us bury it.” I always thought of the Scream as a celebration of the literary life; instead, this July, they offer it elegies. They want to explore “the imminent demise of books, book culture and all that readers hold dear. In the face of its decaying vestiges we celebrate its life, its death and the spectre of its future.” I picture them as the group at the end of Fellini’s 8 ½, holding hands and capering around to the clown’s mad flute music, until the sky goes dark. You see, we’ve already lost the book – even its funeral scene comes from a film.

The Scream people also quote Benjamin unpacking his library, but their quote seems darker: “Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.” Implying, of course, that we book collectors are already extinct.

What now? If the book artefact is soon to be a thing of the past, what happens to all those books, all those literary scenes, popping in and out of our minds?

Toronto writer, Maggie Helwig will explore these questions with a real-life experiment at the Book in the Head Salon: participants will be asked to recreate from memory a classic text. “How do the books we carry in our memories relate to the books on our shelves? What will survive of the book if it’s all resting on us?” she asks.

Helwig explains the thinking behind the event: “The idea for the salon came out of a conversation with a friend about the way that we all carry vaguely-remembered books around in our heads; things we've studied in school or that are generally part of the Western canon and our cultural surround. We thought it would be interesting to find out how much of a text like that a group of literary people could recreate from memory, whether they'd remember actual words or only incidents, what is retained and what is lost.”

Poet, novelist, activist and organizer, Helwig was named best author in NOW magazine’s Best Of T.O. awards for 2008. Helwig loves the city and gives back to it when she can as a cultural worker and activist. She’s the associate director of The Scream Literary Festival, and is active in the Out of the Cold program, which offers safe refuge, hospitality and emergency shelter to the homeless.

The Montreal Gazette describes her beautiful 2008 novel, Girls Fall Down, as, “A tale of paranoia and mob mentality rendered in faultless and precise prose. Set under the shadow of modern terrorism, with echoes of SARS and prescient rumblings of avian flu, the novel offers a realistic vision of Torontonians under pressure, ripples of panic barely breaking the surface of subdued Canadian politeness.”

An important voice in Toronto’s literary scene, Helwig is concerned about what we remember and what we forget of the books we read.

“I've chosen a ‘classic’ text (which won't be revealed in advance) and I'm hoping that there will be enough people prepared to come, and play with the idea, and try to assemble together as much of the text as they can,” Helwig explains. “There will be a person playing Prompt Book on hand, to feed them lines when they dry up completely, and I'll keep track of what they manage to recreate and what's lost. I may publish the assembled text as a chapbook at the end of the festival, if it works out well.”

“I think it has the potential to be a lot of fun, if people are able to get into the spirit of it.”

Let’s play.

Three of my all time favourite books begin like this (I think):

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…”

“On a very hot evening at the beginning of July a young man left his little room…”

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony…”

Can you guess the titles? And what else do you remember about the book?

Let’s try one more:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…”

I added this last one because, although I know that opening well and like it very much, I’ve never gotten more than a few more paragraphs into the book – and likely never will. It’s from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, one of the most infamous of unread classics. I love Dubliners and Ulysses (see opening line #1 above) but the Wake is beyond the efforts of my meagre mind. And if ever there was a book in the head – one brilliant, fucked up, obsessive, singular head – it is the Wake and the head that held Joyce’s hat. If the book goes, and since that head already has, who will remember Finnegans Wake? Surely, if ever there was a masterpiece that was the product of the book, and the very specific literary culture of the age of modernism, the Wake is it. Perhaps Borges can invent “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” recreating Cervantes’ classic identically, but can anyone even imagine Aidan Connolly, author of the Wake, reviving HCE? Impossible. All we’ll have left is “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s.”

What else will we lose?

Look again at opening line number three. I cheated. I didn’t remember a single word from the opening line of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. Supposedly, it’s one of my favourites. I remember a woman was the character I was most concerned about – I picture a beautiful young Czech with long black hair. I remember that the woman was swimming/floating/drowning at one point in the book and then she ends up on an island with children and some strange afterlife-like scene ensues. It doesn’t sound very compelling. But I also remember that when I finished reading the book I didn’t want it to end, and it was the first time I characterized finishing a book as losing a friend who felt so close I wanted to spend all my time in their presence. To the book collector on the verge of extinction that is no small thing. But I remember nothing more. What have I lost?

It’s fun to play the game, but sad to realize that if our books relied on us to keep them alive, remembered, they definitely have a diminished future.

Another opening line, this time from “The Library of Babel” by Borges: “The universe (which others call the library) is composed with an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries....” That’s how I like to imagine the universe, libraries and minds – infinite and full of books.

On July 6th, go to Type to take part in Maggie Helwig’s human experiment and clear some shelf space in your head.

Book in the Head Salon
Monday, July 6, 2009 at 8 p.m.
TYPE Books Basement
883 Queen Street East
Cost: PWYC

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Chris Bucci is a literary agent and freelance editor who lives in Toronto.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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