Inside the Literary Pyramid

Literature, for both the writer and the reader, is an ethereal world - not seen, but existing within a structure with outer walls made of books.

Recently I have dealt in this column with the etymological roots of the word "author." Now the time has come to deal with one aspect of the word that dictionaries do not define: Is being an author a job, a profession, an art, a craft, a hobby, a vocation, a fate, a state of mind?

Something about the murkiness of the meaning of the word can be found in a story, "That Sorrow" by Amir Gutfreund, from his prize-winning collection (in Hebrew), "The Shoreline Mansions": "That sorrow is not only made of memories. It is the sadness of the decision to become a writer. Not to write books, not to publish books. To be a writer. To be - that's the thing."

"Mansions" is his second book; presumably, Gutfreund, who is a colonel in the Israel Air Force, wrote it and its predecessor, "Our Holocaust." In a story called "That Sorrow," he writes about people who decide to be writers: "Their life does not turn out well," he writes, but "those with that sorrow do get rich, and hoard treasures within them."

What is the essence of being a writer? What are those reaches within him or her? In another story in the same collection, "Human Life," Gutfreund's narrator writes about an uncle of his, Alfons, who came back from the First World War after witnessing the atrocities perpetrated by people like him due to the war (becoming coarse, cruel, cheats and thieves), and decided to "enslave himself willingly to the world of literature." Not as a writer, but as a reader and collector. "I've always loved books, but after the war, I've decided, books only. In the books it is all more real, more like the God's world, more human. There is evil there, and the worst things happen in them, the worst of intrigues. But this evil is limited, it is within boundaries. You know, the white margins have their clout, as so do the hard covers. When I came back from the killing fields, everything I was offered looked trivial. Authority, money, pleasures, all the things our family had to offer in abundance. I've chosen literature. There one can fight the triviality, to overcome it. I know, people laugh at me. Those masters who make the world go round. But is this the world?"

Books as sanctuary

This may be a valid reason for someone to want to be a writer - to be omnipotent within a world with definable and limited boundaries. But I doubt that this is enough. With time Uncle Alfons' attitude toward books had changed. "In the coming years he lived among the volumes in his library like a beaver in his hole. The books, by becoming a sanctuary for him, did not serve him anymore in their original capacity. Months would pass without him bothering to read a book."

One day Uncle Alfons counted the number of books in his library, which turned out to have 10,000 volumes, and calculated - assuming that each had an average of 100 pages and was about 30 cm long - that he could build a Great Wall of China of about 300 km long around himself. Stacking them up, they could create a tower of 100 meters in height, taller than the Eiffel.

But it was the pharaohs that he really envied and so he invited Cousin Everest, the mathematician, to calculate how tall a pyramid would be if made of 10,000 books, each one 1 cm thick. Alfons was not satisfied with reflecting on books in two dimensions (with length and width, let's say, being equivalent in a figurative sense to writing a book), or with books in the third dimension only (with height equivalent, say, to publishing a book). He wanted his books - his world of literature - to be in 3-D.

The mathematical answer, precise but not really useful, was disappointing: Each side of the pyramid would measure 31 books, and its height would be 31 cm. In other words, "a pyramid the size of a puppy," which depressed Alfons rather deeply.

Maybe here, within the literary pyramid, are to be found not pharaohs, and not even a sleeping puppy, but this fleeting thing that "being a writer" is. Uncle Alfons had his cousin calculate the height of a pyramid made of volumes that are palpable, of letters and words that were written, and pages and covers that were published and acquired by him. But literature, for both the writer and the reader, is also an impalpable, ethereal world - one that is not seen, but which exists there, within the pyramid, whose outer walls are made of books. There hides the eternal existence of pharaohs and books alike. That is the place where writers - and readers, following in their steps - fight the triviality of their existence, the void that is (or isn't) there in the pyramid, made of books and souls of readers and writers. We'll never know what is buried there in the pyramid unless we break the seal on its door - and read.

In the world of books, everything looks more real. The writers and also the readers, thanks to the writers, can be creators. They are omnipotent in a world that is like God's, but more human by virtue of it being limited, within definable boundaries and not arbitrary. Mysterious, but real.