Tower of Silence

So here we lie at last, having arrived,
Upturned, unraveled, undisturbed.
Here we lie where there is no more hurry,
Here we lie where there is plenty of time.
No more alarms, never early or late,
No more errands, nothing to muddle our thoughts.
Free between earth and sky, picked men,
Sweetly discoursing, attended by nodding birds.
And what is soft and dark in us must fly,
But what is hard and bright in us can stay.
For here in the tower of ivory, brilliant and bare
We are the men of ivory, with nothing to fear.


I just spent five days in the hospital; I beguiled them by reading ebooks. I bought a Kindle recently. I had the chance to try one, and was immediately taken with the idea that if I could transfer the reading I do onscreen to the device, my eyes would have an easier life. Once I confirmed this was possible – between Instapaper and Calibre it is straightforward – I bought it.

It immediately paid for itself in canceled magazine subscriptions. With exceptions, I dislike magazines as physical objects: glary, bulky, ad-ridden. Why pay for the piles, when I could get what I want for free, in a more legible form? And I soon relieved my perennial browser session of all the things I kept open to read in fragments. Besides articles and posts, I had also been thinking of books that were unavailable or exorbitant in print (or only available in those dubious POD reprints with the generic covers) but free on the net. I found myself pilfering the treasure-house of Project Gutenberg.

I have a history with ebooks. I was an enthusiast in the false dawn of ebooks, about ten years ago. Back then the idea was not to save publishers, but to destroy and replace them: to behead the behemoths of New York, to throw open the gates and welcome the multitudes in, to replace the stagnant world of editors and exploitation with something brighter and more breathable. This was the mission of the e-book publishers. For a time I seriously meant to become one. This ambition was twice cured. I assisted a judge in an ebook contest; this was my first contact with the slush pile, and it has never washed off. And I realized I spent far more time reading about ebooks than I did reading ebooks. I excused my disaffection with the argument that ebooks would never be practical without the then-speculative technology of e-ink. By the time e-ink showed up, disaffection had become distaste.

But in the hospital, while I was too weak to hold a paper book open, I read ebooks, and was engrossed. Or, better, I was not reading ebooks; I was reading.

I am not a convert. I will always shun anyone who thinks paper is just dead trees. But I must recant a witticism I was formerly proud of. “I cannot remember who said, ‘The world exists to end up in a book’ [Mallarme]; but I am sure no one will ever say, ‘The world exists to end up in an ebook.” Actually the world exists to be written and read; what we read it on is no more decisive than what we write it on.


“People are stupid” is a non-answer, like “God made it so.” It is a dead end. Perhaps you misunderstand what they are trying to do. Perhaps you overestimate the resources available to them; perhaps you underestimate how hard the things you take for granted are for them. Perhaps they are not deluded, but deceived; perhaps you are deceived. Perhaps they choose not to see what they cannot bear to see; perhaps you are choosing not to see something unbearable. Perhaps the system in which they are caught perversely rewards stupidity; perhaps the system is not perverse, but malicious. Perhaps they just made a mistake. Assume people are not stupid and you will always learn something; assume people are stupid and you will never learn anything. Of course stupidity is real. But truly stupid people do not lack intelligence: they reject it. True stupidity is a skill: a kind of aikido that deftly unbalances the most powerful arguments and sends them sprawling on their faces.