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….Books break the shackles of time.Carl Sagan, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage
I suppose this clip or quote summarizes this post pretty effectively, almost to the point that I have to ask if it even needs to be written. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to write it, and now you are compelled to read it, entering into my mind, hearing the words as I did as I typed them. The concept of books breaking the shackles of time is pretty straight forward, but I would like to explore it a bit further, delving into a discussion of time, consciousness, and what it means to enter the mind of a writer. In short, I’m going to seriously overthink it.
It’s no secret that I am a massive fan of time, both in fiction and reality. The entire concept has amazed me since I was a teenager when I first learned of relativity and the nature of space-time. Since then, I’ve learned a great deal more, including the concept of the externalist (or block) universe. I’ve discussed this, not that long ago, so I won’t fixate too much on it here. However, I wanted to revisit it because I think the implications make books more of a form of time travel than we realize.
The nature of time in a block universe makes every point in time equal to the rest. The notion of time flowing is purely a function of how our brains interpret reality (likely because of entropy). Therefore, when we think about a moment of time in two ways: 1) as a configuration of matter within space and 2) a unique impression made upon our brains to define the experience of that moment. We cannot easily recreate the state of the universe in the past, nor are we likely to find ourselves (i.e., the current configuration of matter that composes us) inserted into that slice of time. All we have to go on are the lasting impressions that moment of time made on the universe. We can recreate a picture of that time in the same way that geologists can recreate the picture of Earth in the distant past. However, that is not the same as truly experiencing it. We can understand it, but it will never replicate the conscious experience of being there, while reading can.
When we read the words of a book, we’re seeing the inner dialogue that an author has in their mind as they right it. We are recreating the internal experience of that moment. This is most true in nonfiction, whether it be a memoir or even any other sub-genre. Newton’s Principia Mathematica doesn’t just communicate science, it communicates the inner workings of his mind in the moment. Even in fiction, we are seeing the imagination created by the imprints of their surroundings. We could read ancient literature and enter the mind of Homer over 2500 yrs ago. The story has been retold and translated, filtering the experience down, but at its core is a section of thought impressed by the world in 600 – 800 B.C.. Books are an impression of a fraction of an author’s mind, but what does it mean to experience a moment if not to form a compendium of impressions? It’s a hazy recreation of a moment of the past. Therefore, to read is to travel back in time.
Books are an impression of a fraction of an authors mind, but what does it mean to experience a moment if not to form a compendium of impressions?
Let us be clear. I am fully aware of how hand wavy this entire discussion is (to the point that I’m a little embarrassed to share it), but if one truly wishes to travel back in time, reading is one of your best ways of doing it. It isn’t the only reason to read. However, I think it can be a fun and exciting way of approaching some forms of reading. Every classic work is more than a piece of entertainment. It’s a portal back in time. If you had the option to travel back in time (safely and with confidence that you can return) would you not take it? I certainly would, and it’s part of why I read some classics. It’s also why I’d like to eventually get to more ancient literature of which I’ve read very little. Ignoring high school, the furthest back in time I’ve traveled is ~1000 A.D. with the Tale of Genji, and I am itching to take the machine even further back. Of course, I can’t stop with just one book. Remember, a moment is defined by a collage of impressions. True time travel requires we take in multiple impressions which means exploring multiple works.
In the end, this is nonsensical. We can’t travel back in time (yet at least), and I know that. I wish to be very clear that I’m being purely metaphorical (in case any random readers stumble upon this post and think I think this is real). It’s strictly intended as a way to excite myself and other readers into reading more and exploring different types of works.