“The ground of the book rises like a terrace into the future. There takes place the fore-gesture, as it were, with which, after every stair innocently climbed, the writer embraces absence in the age of the book. We believed the news of the book’s premature disappearance: every page comments on it with its cuts, like a man who at any moment of his life tells a fragment of the story of his death so that it can be pondered.”
‒ Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions.1
“...the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words – with ‘hieroglyphics’, as Turner called them. And the space inhabited by immediate resemblances becomes like a vast open book; it bristles with written signs; every page is seen to be filled with strange figures that intertwine and in some places repeat themselves. All that remains is to decipher them…”
– Michel Foucault, The Order of Things.2
“Everything written fades away sooner or later. The Weltgeist reads all books and the fading of all books, and laughs. For us it is a good thing to have read some of them and gained an intimation of their meaning. The meaning that evades all written work, yet dwells in it secretly, is always the same.” – Hermann Hesse, Reflections3

The book is a figure for the world, and so many works in the history of philosophy, theology, and religion use the image of a book to figure the world, that is – to figurally represent it, to try to figure it out, and to image and imagine it. Michel Foucault’s suggestion in The Order of Things that the world is covered with signs and ciphers “like a vast open book” resonates with so many others, from Leszek Kołakowski’s assertion that “we shall never be free of the temptation to perceive the universe as a book in secret code to which somewhere there is a key, and we will stubbornly go on searching for that key,”4 to Hans Blumenberg’s magisterial study The Readability of the World which traces the metaphorics of the book from the ancient Greeks to DNA.5

The idea that the world, the universe, the cosmos, or whatever all-encompassing term we might use, is some great book of pages is fascinating, not least because the book is still just one object in the world. So why accord to it such an exceptional and metaphysical status? Perhaps it is a narcissistic projection, as one might see in Paul Valéry’s claim that “a book is a singular object” that “more than anything else in the world… resembles a man [sic.].”6 Such analogical relationships between books and people, or books and the world, are interesting because at first face – in the sea of objects and the vast complex multiplicity of this life – a book does not seem to be any more exemplary of humanity or the cosmos than anything else. But perhaps this is only a contemporary assumption, reflective of present presuppositions that can be forgetful of the theological afterlives of so many secular modern concepts.

Certainly this relationship of representation where the book stands in for the world and the world is read like a book has something to do with the religions of the book, but it cannot only be an inheritance from – as Lévinas describes – the “sentiment that the Bible is the Book of books wherein the first things are said, those that became said so that human life has a meaning…”7 No, there must be more to the book’s prevalence as a key metaphysical figure than can be traced to and through the complex legacies of the religions of the book. This is especially the case because of how extensively the image of the Book (capital-B) has been used by recent French philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. 

The notion that the world is a book with immanent enigmas and mysteries written on its face is the beginning of a much more radical hypothesis: that the world is truly book-like, and resembles a book far more than can be expressed in formulations that rely upon metaphor, image, or mere representation. I am thinking here of Jacques Derrida’s oft-interpreted and always-twisted statement in Of Grammatology that “there is no outside-text” or “nothing outside of the text.”8 I want to suggest that it would be reductive to take an instrumental reading of the idea that the world is a book – a reading that might say: “yes, the book is a great image for the world, but ultimately the idea that the world is a book is just a thought-figure that helps us to see something interesting, after which the metaphor of the book can be discarded.” Instead, let us stay with the idea that the world is a book and follow some of its paths through bibliophilia9 toward truths on its other side.

To turn from thinking of the world as a book toward a stronger and more persistent sense that the world is a book will demand a new relationship between language and reality that is ready to wander, so I want to follow Walter Benjamin’s instinct to compile quotations with commentary in order to walk through the streets of this world. As Hannah Arendt wonders of Benjamin in the introduction to Illuminations: how to understand a writer whose greatest pride is that their writing consists mostly of quotations?10 Benjamin’s desire to catalogue rare quotations in a sort of mosaic is inspiring to me, in part because he sees quotations as a “transcendental force” that both interrupts and concentrates texts.11 No wonder he spoke of his “inner need to own a library”!12 (I write this in Spring 2023 as I am unpacking my library13 yet again, after a basement flood that nearly ruined not only my own collection, but nearly washed away the Pandora Press archive – keeping in mind of course that the publishing company I direct shares a name with Pandora, a woman created by the Gods and given a name meaning ‘all-gifts,’ “though she would be a plague for labouring men.”14)

We have many terms at our disposal to think about relationships between the language we use to name the world and the world named by our language. There is not only the Book, but also the Work, the Text, the Archive, and so on…15 But I think that the most promising term is not even necessarily the book as we mind find it in the bookstores that remain,16 but a specific kind of compendium-like book – for that term implies a form of encyclopedic collection that seeks to gather all things under its wings, but which struggles with the totalitarian resonances of that desire.17 Let’s think here of the library of Babel in Jorge Luis Borges short story, which begins with the line “The universe (which others call the Library)…” and ends with the notion that this universal library is unlimited and cyclical, while in the middle we hear of a mystical belief that “there must exist a book that is a cipher and perfect compendium of all other books…”18 It seems that any compendium or book of all books will come with all of the problems that totalizing visions and encyclopedic desires entail.

But despite and against the risk that the metaphysics of the book lapses into the various violences of singularization, capture, and closure, I want to theorize the book in particular by surveying some thinkers who use the term as a figure for the world, or who talk about the capital-B Book as a way of doing metaphysics – and I will do so in an unsystematic way. Many books undertake the immense project of representing the or a whole world. Let’s consider encyclopedic novels like Hermann Melville’s Moby-Dick19 or Olga Tokarczuk’s incredible work in the recently translated Books of Jacob,20 or uncategorizable compendia like the Zibaldone of Giacomo Leopardi, with its 2000 pages of literature, philosophy, and poetry.21 Each of these texts is both complete and fragmentary, both linear and nonlinear – always mediating between a grand encyclopedic vision and a single (or even fragmentary) expression of it. Books like these provide some of the best witnesses to the chiasm between world and book, for each of them are worlds unto themselves that also represent something of this world. Each of their authors are those rare individuals who see the world through books, and this is a strange way of seeing the world that brings great rewards but also comes at a great price. Leopardi, for example, barely left his home in the sixteen years it took to write the Zibaldone. Surely, we wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But just as surely, we want books, and we want them to have cosmic and metaphysical proportions. 

In their short text “rhizome” published in On the Line and which introduces A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari field their unique metaphysics of the book, writing that, “A book only exists by means of an outside, a beyond…” Their positioning of the book as something that depends on transcendence leads them to claim that

the book imitates the world, as art does nature, by employing procedures that are peculiar to it and that carry out what nature cannot or can no longer do. The law of the book is that of reflection, the One that becomes two. How can the law of the book exist in nature, since it presides over the very division between book and world, art and nature?22

For these two thinkers, the book can be a rhizome that challenges binary thinking with immanent multiplicities, or a tree root system that entrenches binarism in movements from one to two. Their contemporary Maurice Blanchot, also critiques binary logics through the performance and theorization of fragmentary writing in and about the Book. In The Writing of the Disaster, he proclaims: “Never either-or, simple logic. And never two at once, the two that always end up affirming each other dialectically or compulsively (antagonism without any risk to it).”23 Elsewhere, in his book The Infinite Conversation, he writes that “the Book always indicates an order that submits to unity,” and yet no reader of The Infinite Conversation would say that it constitutes something unified – which is perhaps testament to his own idea that “writing is the greatest violence.”24 In the final chapter of The Infinite Conversation Blanchot writes in a way we will recognize, providing another metaphysics of the Book: 

Culture is bound to the book. The book as a repository and a receptacle of knowledge becomes identified with knowledge. The book is not only the book found in libraries, that labyrinth where all the combinations of forms, words, and letters are rolled up in volumes. The book is the Book. Still to be read, to be written, always already written and thoroughly penetrated by reading, the book constitutes the condition for every possibility of reading and writing.25

By contrast we might look to Jean-Francois Lyotard who resists all unifying metaphysics of the book in a much more aggressive way, writing that “there is no book that is not the ideal of the immobilized organic body” and then registering his disagreement with the assertion: “Not a book, only libidinal instalments…”26 In his book Libidinal Economy, he states definitively and negatively that the Book is neither “a selection, a recollection, a testimony, or a statement,” nor “a race against death, against the frenzied night which will strike us down…”27 

Deleuze and Guattari, Blanchot and Lyotard – each in their own way are concerned that the metaphysics of the Book will lead to the violent closure of all those things the Book attempts to collect under its wings – what Albrecht Koschorke calls the dictatorial and totalitarian “cult of the book.”28 Let’s take this warning with deadly seriousness. How could one possibly write a unified book or a poetic expression in face of the violence of the world, alongside horrors of war that continue to unfold – like what we now see in Europe and the Middle East. Whereas Adorno says that one cannot write poetry after Auschwitz (albeit in a more complex way than a mere prohibition communicates), the French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès says the opposite: one has to write.29 And Jabès knows all about how the figure of “the Book” is already metaphysical – not in the violent metaphysics of totalitarian power, but in the desert of exile and diaspora. For those who do not know (and maybe it should stay a secret), Jabès great work is a long set of poetic cycles that focus on the figure of the book. His Book of Questions is in four volumes in English, and his Book of Resemblances is in three. His other books – which bear unique relationships with the series’ that he published – include the Book of Margins, the Book of Shares, the Little Book of Unexpected Subversion, and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Book

Jabès’ work became somewhat popular in the discourse on religion and postmodernism in the 1990s, and has held a minor cult following ever since, but his insights are yet to be fully appreciated, and only a dozen or so secondary works have appeared over the years (for recent work see Tsivia Wygoda Frank’s new book Edmond Jabès and the Archaeology of the Book or Przemyslaw Tacik’s book The Freedom of Lights: Edmond Jabès and Jewish Philosophy of Modernity). I have been collecting his books for several years, since I encountered Derrida’s readings of him in Writing and Difference, and this quest for books has led to fascinating places. In search of a copy of the third volume of the Book of Resemblances, I reached out to Rosemarie Waldrop, Jabès’ English translator. To my surprise, she responded, sending me not only several books by Jabès but three others by an odd Mennonite poet named Dallas Wiebe (from her own, now closed, publishing company Burning Deck Books). I found it strange that there would be any connection at all between Jabès and an obscure Mennonite poet, but the mysteries of the Book reveal exactly these sorts of unexpected convergences that reflect the blooming diversity of our world. 

In 2003, Gabriel Zaid wrote of how the writing of books and the book trade was increasing so exponentially that our “universal graphomania” has resulted in the publication of at least one book every 30 seconds.30 If this is not a metaphysically significant condition then I do not know what is! So a metaphysics of the book cannot remain abstract, as it too often does when left to philosophers and the old kind of metaphysics that dissociates from specificity, particularity, and contextual rooting in spaces, places, and times. It must reckon with and account for the fact that there is something about books that form deep figural connections between hitherto unconnected people, places, and ideas. 

If we want a metaphysics of objects and relations (as some Speculative Realists have called for), then perhaps the book can be a key object because it forms consistent linkages and social bonds between people that cannot easily be reduced to relations of instrumentality – especially when books are long, difficult, obscure, or hard to find. If the book was a metaphor we could use and discard, or if it was a tool to get something done, surely it would have been superseded by now. But it endures. Why? Likely because the book is lodged in the tension between what Zaid calls our “totalizing ambition” and our desire to resist the great violence of our time.31 A metaphysics of the book that would not lapse into metaphysical violence ought to remember this tension between the aspiration to universality and the ease by which this inclination leads to horrific ends, and it ought to mediate between beautiful desires like curiosity and the great risk that all explorations take. And the best way to do this would be to reconsider the fundamental relationship between writing and life.

In that spirit I want to briefly situate myself. This subject is close to my heart because it was the idea that the world was an interpretable text that motivated me to write in the first place, and I am still spurred onward by the idea that the world is a book – but not a particular book or a book with a singular name or history, but instead a sort of compendium: an encyclopedic compilation and amalgamation of signs, characters, ciphers, and figures, each of which are mysterious and intertwining parts of the whole world-book that only reveals itself slowly as the pages of time turn. I was drawn to the idea that there is a loneliness to the project and projection of the Book (as expressed by Boris Groys32), alongside the notion that there is a “book of life,” or a “book into which everything can go” (in the work of American mystic and monk Thomas Merton33). This led me to a place where the metaphysical figure of the book – being a project and a way of recording or even living a life – became more agitating than comforting. We can think here of how Franz Kafka argued that the ideal purpose of a book was to awaken people with a decisive cut.34 Such awakening work cannot be romanticized, but neither should it be juxtaposed so simply with living. The writing life is a difficult work of cutting into the world. This is something Annie Dillard understood intimately in Holy the Firm, when through her protagonist to a group of students (but also to her readers) she asks:

How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives to be writers? I was trembling from coffee, or cigarettes, or the closeness of faces all around me. (Is this what we live for? I thought; is this the only final beauty: the color of any skin in any light, and living, human eyes?) All hands rose to the question. (You, Nick? Will you? Margaret? Randy? Why do I want them to mean it?) And then I tried to tell them what the choice must mean: You can’t be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax…35

If I had been there, Annie Dillard’s secular altar call – her question: who will be a writer? – would have converted me immediately. The question is essential for a metaphysics of the book. To go at one’s own life with a broadaxe is an image for writing that initially seems violent, for the cleaving violations of the axe against wood may seem analogous to greater forms of violence.36 But this is not so. Something valuable that works against the totalitarian and totalizing violence of closure lies within the decisive activity of severing apart wood and in the creative fissuring of writing words on a page. Perhaps there is violence to be found in both the desire for all-encompassing writing and the desire to abstain from writing for fear of its totalizing desires. Still better to go at life with a pen that is really an axe.

But in the spirit of the two-sided nature of all things – and in closing – we can see that there is a way in which writing cuts and chops, but also a way in which writing binds and bonds by weaving social connections between hitherto separate authors and writers; writing as a form of friendship. When I told a dear friend of mine – a farmer and an accountant – about this idea that the world is a book, he looked at me, laughed, and said very flatly but with care: “It absolutely is not!” What a challenge to the dissociative desire to escape into books at the expense of life, and a confirmation of Jabès’ speculation that “perhaps all books are simply written expression of a friendship searching for itself…”37

  1. Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Yaël, Elya, Aely. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 151.
  2. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (London & New York: Routledge, 1989), 26-27.
  3. Hermann Hesse, Reflections. Ed. Volker Michels. Trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), 112. He writes elsewhere – perhaps too myopically – that “The reader in the last stage simply doesn’t read anymore. Why books? Has he not the entire world within himself?” See Hermann Hesse, My Belief: Essays on Life and Art. Ed. Theodor Ziolkowski. Trans. Denver Lindley (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), 105.
  4. Leszek Kołakowski, Metaphysical Horror (London: Penguin, 1988), 128.
  5. Hans Blumenberg, The Readability of the World. Trans. Robert Savage and David Roberts (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022).
  6. Paul Valéry, “The Physical Aspects of a Book” in Aesthetics. Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Volume 13. Ed. Jackson Mathews. Trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Pantheon, 1964), 212.
  7. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1995), 23. Or for a reductive Catholic formulation, Karl Rahner writes that “The continual fresh production of new books thus belongs to the essence of the Church’s history, precisely because it is her task to serve the continual here-and-now reality of the one book; precisely because all these many books have got to lead back to that one book.” See Karl Rahner, “On the Theology of Books,” in Mission and Grace, Volume 3. Trans. Cecily Hastings (London: Sheed & Ward, 1966), 106.
  8. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Corr. Edition. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 158. Jacques Derrida, De La Grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967), 220. In the same book Derrida writes that “The idea of the book is the idea of a totality…” (18).
  9. See the fascinating dramatization of bibliophilia and bibliomania in Braden Matthew, Solarium (Slovenia: Corona/Samizdat, 2023), 1-12.
  10. Hannah Arendt, “Introduction” in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968), 8. The editors of his Passagen-Werke also note that “What is distinctive about The Arcades Project – in Benjamin’s mind, it always dwelt apart – is the working of quotations into the framework of montage, so much so that they eventually far outnumber the commentaries.” In Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (London: Belknap Press, 1999), xi.
  11. Ibid, 39.
  12. Ibid, 39 and 59-67.
  13. Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968). Like Benjamin, I’ll ask that you “join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood – it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, on of anticipation – which these books arouse in a genuine collector.” (59).
  14. Hesiod, Works and Days, 84.
  15. See the discussion of works, texts, and documents in G. Thomas Tanselle, A Rationale of Textual Criticism(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).
  16. See Jorge Carrion, Bookshops: A Reader’s History. Trans. Peter Bush (Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2017).
  17. I wrote about this a long time ago in Dialectics Unbound (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2013).
  18. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel,” Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald B. Yates and James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1962), 51, 56, 58. For the second quotation I have used the translation by Andrew Hurley. Cf. Georges Perec, Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. Trans. John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 2020 [Original 1997]), 69.
  19. See Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker. 3rd Ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).
  20. Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob. Trans. Jennifer Croft (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021). Tokarczuk’s masterpiece opens with an encounter between a rabbi and a priest in search of a book (876).
  21. Giacamo Leopardi, Zibaldone. Rev. Ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). The editors describe how the book was born and died in a library (xvi).
  22. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “rhizome,” On the Line. Trans. John Johnston (New York: Semiotexte, 1983), 4-6.
  23. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster. New Edition. Trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 46. See also Maurice Blanchot, “The Book to Come” in The Book to Come. Trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).
  24. Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation. Trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xii.
  25. Ibid, 423.
  26. Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy. Trans Ian Hamilton Grant (London: Continuum, 2004), 256.
  27. Ibid, 260.
  28. Albrecht Koschorke, On Hitler’s Mein Kampf: The Poetics of National Socialism. Trans. Erik Butler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 25.
  29. Quoted in Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), 9.
  30. Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. Trans. Natasha Wimmer (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2003), 9, 21.
  31. Ibid, 23.
  32. Boris Groys, “The Loneliness of the Project,” New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory. Vol. 1 (2002). He writes that “in the eyes of any author of a project, the most agreeable projects are those, which, from their very inception, are conceived never to be completed, since these are the ones that are more likely to maintain the gap between the future and the present for an unspecified length of time. Such projects are never carried out, never generate an end result, never bring about a final project.”
  33. Thomas Merton, A Search for Solitude: Journals Vol. III (1952-1960) (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 45. He writes: 

    It is necessary to write a book in which there will be a little less of the first person singular, a little less dramatizing, and fewer resolutions. 
    Or rather, it is not necessary to write a book. Or anything else. 
    One is free to keep a notebook. That is sufficient. 
    One may write or not write. Therefore one may write. 

    Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything, or you look at your own life and your own part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation and praise. Beyond all and in all is God. 
    Perhaps the book of life, in the end, is the book of what one has lived, and if one has lived nothing, one is not in the book of life. 
    And I have always wanted to write about everything. 
    That does not mean to write a book that covers everything – which would be impossible. But a book into which everything can go. A book with a little of everything. That has its own life. A faithful book. I no longer look at it as a ‘book.’
  34. He writes to his friend in 1904: “I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?” quoted in Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 17. Elsewhere she writes that “for the sons of the Book: research, the desert, inexhaustible space, encouraging, discouraging, the march straight ahead.” Hélène Cixous, “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays. Ed. Deborah Jenson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 14-15.
  35. Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper, 1977), 18. Cf. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: Harper, 1989), 78-79, where the author writes: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
  36. On the concept of violence, see my Ontologies of Violence: Deconstruction, Pacifism, and Displacement (Leiden: Brill, 2023).
  37. Edmond Jabes, The Book of Margins. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 184.

Maxwell Kennel is a Senior Research Associate in the Dr. Gilles Arcand Centre for Health Equity at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He is the author of Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Ontologies of Violence: Deconstruction, Pacifism, and Displacement (Brill, 2023), and a forthcoming study, Critique of Conspiracism (Routledge). He is also the Director of Pandora Press and the editor of its Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies series.