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date: 30 September 2023

7 The Book as Symbol 

The Oxford Companion to the Book
Brian CummingsBrian Cummings

‘Books are not absolutely dead things,’ wrote John Milton in 1644 in *Areopagitica. A book is a physical object, yet it also signifies something abstract, the words and the meanings collected within it. Thus, a book is both less and more than its contents alone. A book is a metonym for the words that we read or for the thoughts that we have as we read them. At one level, like any domestic object, a book takes on the imprint of its producer and its users. Old books have further value as containing the presence of many other readers in the past. Yet, more than other objects, a book is felt to embody not only a physical memory but also a record of past thoughts. The book contains both its reader and its author. In Milton’s more poetic terms, books ‘contain a potency of life in them’, because they ‘preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them’. The book thus achieves a further mystery, of transforming what appears to be purely immaterial and conceptual into something with a concrete form. It is therefore not entirely extravagant for Milton to claim that a book possesses ‘a life beyond life’. Destroying a book, then, Milton says, is like an act of homicide—indeed it is worse than that, since a book encloses the life of more than one person and exists in more than one time. Paradoxically, regardless of the material survival of a physical copy or artefact, a book is something immortal and imperishable.... ...

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