B is for Battling Books

B is for Battle. Why do books battle? Wherefore warfare in our metaphor? Of course, it isn’t only books that battle. People battle disease, notably cancer. What makes us so prone to warring metaphors?

Battling books came to life in Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books, a clash between Ancients and Moderns with no clear resolution. Since Swift’s account of this battle, fought in St. James’s Library, was published in 1704, we might now consider Swift’s “Moderns” rather out of date. Yet the battle over the Literary Canon rages on. Which books are big guns? Who should we read? How is ethnicity (or gender) involved (or implicated) in epistemology? How do we know what to read? Who do we trust to tell us what to read?

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me for a reading list. I’m usually happy to recommend reading, but I am reluctant to list things, as though that were some kind of Canon of Books To Be Read. Yet I get asked the question. This means that (some) people trust me to tell them about things that might be interesting to read. I am a fan of reading broadly, which means I like my reading to come from books both Ancient and Modern. New and old reading challenges me to think differently, to broaden my horizons. I don’t like fixed canons, though I do see the point of them. Common ground in reading gives people places to start in conversation. Instead of a battle, I’d rather the books (and their readers) sat down and had a real discussion, one that involved listening carefully and thoughtful replies, instead of entrenched positions and cutting remarks.

On the disease front, perhaps it would be healthier for everyone if we used life-giving rather than battle-drenched metaphor. Unfortunately the fighting words around disease are so entrenched (a battle-word if there ever was one), that I’m not sure what life-giving lively metaphor would even sound like. I’m open to ideas.

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1 Comment

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One response to “B is for Battling Books

  1. Alice

    I’ve heard of people calling it a “journey” with cancer…although that sounds a little too companionable to me…

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