The Perfect Book

Photograph by Sophie Berdzenishvili

"... For Mallarme the perfect book is one whose pages have never been cut, their mystery forever preserved, like a bird's folded wing, or a fan never opened." - Maggie Nelson, Bluets

I have a confession: there's a book (a novel) - to preserve the secret I won't reveal the title - I speak of as if I've read, though I never actually have.

I've owned this book for ten years, at least, so time isn't an excuse. I've picked it up dozens of times with the intention of reading it; I've brought it on trips; I've read about it in other books, but I've always held back from reading it. From what I gather it's not particularly difficult or intimidating. Based on my literary predilections, it's a book I am absolutely certain is "my kind" of literature.

Even given my not-having-read-the-book, I've often recommended it to people based on... not false pretenses, exactly, but a feeling that this book, the one I haven't read but feel a deep affinity for nevertheless, deserves to be read - by others. I've always equivocated, saying, for instance: "I love X." or "X. means a lot to me." Despite the fact that I've not read it, these statements are not false. I do love the novel, it does mean a lot to me. (In fact, given its special place in my reading - or rather non-reading - history, I cherish it more than many of the books I've read and loved.)

When I occasionally suffer pangs of guilt or worry that I'm making fraudulent claims or deceiving people who put their trust in my taste (not to speak of my sense of honor), I remind myself that there are innumerable things I love without fully understanding and that I am perfectly happy not to understand: the mechanics of flight, nebulae, the French language, evolution, baking. (To name a few.)

It would seem that a book belongs to a different species of object: a book is for reading, after all, that's its agreed-upon function. Yet does the fact that we can read a book limit it to that exclusive use? I hope not. (Do birds fly so we can understand flight?) I think it's possible to love the idea of a book or the way it feels in your hands or looks on your shelf or the memories it evokes. (Or, perhaps, for other, more ineffable reasons.) I think it's possible that the feeling we have for a book - based on whatever affinity or memory - is sufficient to serve as the only justification necessary for our enthusiasm.

I wonder if you agree.