Monday, February 04, 2013

And Yet The Books

I stumbled on a poem by the Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) and was struck by a couple of resonances with Ray Bradbury.

Miłosz was born in Lithuania, lived and worked in Poland for several years, and in the 1950s defected to the US. He wrote poetry and prose, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. The New York Times obituary for Miłosz characterises him as "a poet of memory and a poet of witness".

His poem "And Yet The Books" (1986) considers how books can survive long after individuals or civilisations have passed on:

I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
The whole poem is online at Poemhunter.
 
"And Yet The Books" reminds me of two Bradbury stories. Most obviously, I suppose, it recalls Fahrenheit 451, which is about books somehow surviving a cultural dark ages - although, of course, in Bradbury's novel it's not the physical books that survive, but the content of the books, the memorised texts.

The other Bradbury echo is of "And There Will Come Soft Rains", the poignant short story which describes a an electromechanical house which continues to serve its human owners after the human race has been wiped out by its own atomic bombs. In that story, even the house eventually must crumble into ruin, so Bradbury's story doesn't quite have the optimism implied by "And Yet The Books".

Fortunately for us, history has (so far) supported Miłosz's scenario. Despite great losses like the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and the collapse of major civilisations, somehow great texts have survived down the ages.When books were physical objects, that is...

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