Ever since I first started writing online, well over a decade ago, I’ve often felt compelled to mention that I sit here in my study surrounded by hundreds of books that I’ve collected over the years. I’m far from being alone in this, because I know that countless millions of other people the world over also take an enormous pleasure, albeit one that’s difficult to precisely define, in owning and being able to physically handle these amazing things.
The late, great Carl Sagan spoke eloquently about the subject of books on a number of occasions, but the observation that made the greatest impact on me was this: “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
In addition to the incredible ability of being able to transport us through time, it’s evident that there can sometimes be something almost literally enchanting about the content of a book, inasmuch as it’s able to inspire wonderment in a reader. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Game of Thrones series, men and women have been able to create entire worlds in which we can happily lose ourselves for hours or even days on end, while the same principle applies to non-fiction creations as well.
For example, one of my many prized possessions is a 1987 hardback copy of Peter Wright’s once-notorious book Spycatcher, which was given to me by a friend who’d bought it in Australia at a time when it was banned here in Britain, but everyone reading this will immediately be able to compose their own lengthy list of what their favourite books are, along with passionate and detailed reasons for their choices.
I’m not aware that there exists a formula for writing a successful book, although as far as fiction is concerned, then it stands to reason that a writer’s ability to create memorable characters and to tell a compelling story is all-important, whether that tale is about Harry Potter, Hannibal Lecter, Mary Poppins or King Arthur. Mankind seems to be obsessed by the telling of stories, so I would imagine that an even more important element in the success of the aforementioned Spycatcher than the revelations it contained was the inside story recounted by the author, who regaled us with his emotive account of his attempts to identify a spy at the highest reaches of Britain’s intelligence services.
I could provide innumerable other examples of the power and the appeal that books possess and why this is the case for any given volume, but I have no intention of launching into even the most cursory examination of the history of publishing. Despite the comparatively recent advent of online publishing, I’m certain that physically-printed books will be with us for as long as there are human beings to revere them, so I found myself idly wondering about the nature of a book that people around the world would want to physically possess more than any other, if it were to come into existence now.
To begin with, I imagine it would be possible to present a reasonable case that characters such as King Arthur, Robin Hood, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Mary Poppins and Harry Potter have an almost universal appeal. Not everyone likes them, of course, while some religious people have taken an intense dislike to Harry Potter in particular because they see the books and films in which he appears as actively promoting an engagement with unholy or demonic forces. Even if you allow for the apparently never-ending fount of creativity that exists in the human imagination and also for translators who might freely amend a work so as to make it more appealing to a particular culture, it’s hard to see how a work of fiction would become a physical book that would be more sought-after than anything else that’s gone before.
Such a thing is not impossible, of course, but bearing in mind the many obstacles involved with a fictional work, I thought instead of the world of non-fiction. In the eyes of their billions of devotees, as well as in the considered opinions of a number of historians, the holy books of our religions contain nothing but facts about historical personages and events, as well as revelations from a supernatural source, but I suspect that anyone reading this will immediately balk at the size and scale of the objections of trying to please all these people at the same time, for reasons I do not feel I need to spell out.
So, how could anyone begin to compose a work that would simultaneously please and appeal to a sizable majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and pagans, as well as people of other faiths and those who are atheists and agnostics? I suppose it would have to be a book dealing with a genuine discovery, something whose physical nature could not be disputed, that elicited wonderment in all who knew about it whose nature did not contradict any of the teachings of any of our holy books or religious leaders. It surely goes without saying that such a thing would also have to possess the power to enthrall our scientists, as well as the agnostics and atheists among us.
I can’t remember when I first became aware of it, but I’ve long been intrigued by the Fibonacci Sequence, a mathematical formula so simple that even I can understand it. The sequence begins with 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and continues in this way, with each number being the sum of the two that preceded it, aside from at the very beginning. The internet is full of detailed studies of this sequence that spell out its astonishing properties, but while I don’t pretend to understand them all, it fascinates me that so many things in creation, from snail shells here on Earth to vast spiral galaxies billions of light years distant from us, all have forms that exhibit the same mathematical properties.
In his 1985 novel Contact, Carl Sagan wrote “What I’m saying is, if God wanted to send us a message, and ancient writings were the only way he could think of doing it, he could have done a better job.” Beyond marvelling at it and at its properties, I honestly do not know what to make of the Fibonacci Sequence, nor do I know what if any views the world’s religious scholars hold on it. However, I would not be remotely surprised if some discerned in this sequence evidence of a divine hand or creator, while the fascination it holds for mathematicians and scientists is there for all to see.
My point is that if some genius had belatedly discovered this sequence two years ago instead of roughly two millennia ago, then had published his findings and story in an illustrated book that demonstrated the connection between spiral snail shells, storms and distant galaxies, then I’m certain that it would have instantly become a wonder of our age, a source of intense fascination for believers and non-believers alike.
Is it possible that someone could make a similar observation today, in our Age of Enlightenment? I cannot speak for mathematical formulae, because I would imagine that with the advent of computers and space exploration, every conceivable ratio and and geometrical relationship has been explored long ago. While it’s possible that some insightful genius will one day discern some previously unremarked-upon aspect of the world around us, perhaps pertaining to some commonplace thing such as fire, water or music that Mankind’s been familiar with for eons, there’s one other thing common to all humanity about which we seem to know very little; I refer of course to sleep, the curious state of consciousness that brings with it something even more mysterious, our dreams.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”