Books: Architecture for the Mind
A few years back I read the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. If you haven’t read it, you might think it was a tragic, sad love story. It certainly is that, but it is also a book about architecture. The reference to the Paris cathedral is not just for the setting, you see. In this novel, the narrator goes to great lengths to describe how in the past architecture functioned as a way of recording the ideas of a people in its buildings. Different styles spoke of different values and over the centuries the history of a people would play itself out in the great edifices of a nation.
It was an interesting concept and one which I had not given much thought to before, but in an illiterate society, things like architecture and sculpture may have been the best way to communicate certain ideas and stories to the masses. Paintings do not whether the elements very well and require careful preservation, but in the great cities of Europe the cathedrals and churches, the towers and statues were the chief forms of “mass” communication of the time (though perhaps “massive communication” would be a better way to describe them). Thousands of people would pass them by as they stood weathering the elements century after century, bearing silent witness to the values and ideas which brought them into existence.
Even stone can crumble
But since the invention of the printing press, people have (generally) become more and more literate with each successive generation. And it’s telling that the very idea Hugo was proposing was recorded in written form, not in architecture, meaning that by the time Hunchback was published, the revolution had long been over. Books had won and the written word had become the primary means of communicating ideas to large groups of people.
Once that happened the analogy reversed itself. The stories of a people were no longer “written” through architecture brick by brick, but instead were “built” into books page by page.
The architecture metaphor is extremely helpful in understanding the value of books. Because while they lack the physical framework and structure of buildings, good stories help build edifices in the mind just as strong and as powerful as the ones that used to take decades or even centuries to construct out of stone and mortar.
To put it simply, books give us a framework on which to think. They give us support beams on which to hang our ideas. They open windows and doors to concepts we had hitherto only dreamed of dreaming of. This is almost always done in the background, however. Rarely do we think about the support beams as we walk through our kitchens or the duct work as we visit a restaurant, but the structure is always there. There are, however, certain aspects of these buildings of ideas which we do notice and I’ll touch on those in a moment.
At its most basic level, a book is built on words and fitted together with grammar. Things like sentence structure–nouns, verbs, punctuation and the like–these are the nuts and bolts and the raw materials of the author. But from there we move quickly to things like diction and pacing and tense. These represent the basic framework of the story. They are fixed in place according to our floor plan which is the plot the author has created.
But the plot and the individual rooms only function properly when they are meaningfully connected with each other. This is where things like plumbing and electricity make the house livable. Here characters come into play through things like dialogue, foreshadowing, flashbacks, background details, motivations and other tools of the author’s trade. After this we add paint, decorative details, and other accents with narrative tone, humor, word choice, gestures, and mannerisms. Finally we unload the moving truck and unpack all of our furniture and nick-nacks and the world-building and descriptive elements come into play.
In the end, if the author has done his job, the reader is left with a many-chambered mansion to explore, where each door opens to a room more splendid than the last and where even closets and drawers hold enough fascinating discoveries that we cannot help but want to explore them. And some books we will come back to and visit over and over again, like a cozy chalet on the coast where our mind can find rest.
If you find such a book, I encourage you to make it a frequent pilgrimage. For just as when one finds an enchanting corner of the world it is natural to desire to return there, so it is with books. As C.S. Leiws put it:
I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.
But in using this metaphor there is one aspect of the book which I have saved for last and that is the foundation. The odd thing about this aspect of the book is that many authors themselves seem to be unaware of it. They fancy french doors and think that is all that is needed. They set them in the air and remain unsurprised when they magically stay there.
Whether or not one is conscious of the underpinnings of a story, they are always there. Because the foundation is no more than this, the fundamental way the author is choosing to view the world. The foundations are the assumptions and understandings which an author brings to the text and upon which his story is built.
Worldview: the master plan
Now sometimes the foundation is very clear in an author’s mind. And a bad sort of writing would be to leave such a foundation exposed and make it the focus the story and not the house itself. Very few readers find much comfort in contemplating a slab of concrete, however sturdy and marvelously engineered it may be. When the ideas behind a story overshadow the story itself, the chances are high that most readers will be lost.
And yet most authors do not make that mistake. Most make the opposite error and in so doing, rush into building a story without ever contemplating the sorts of things upon which it is based. And thus many stories, cleverly built though they may be, depend upon some awful assumptions and terrible ideas which the world would be better off without. Because the foundations on which a story are built get passed unspoken to the reader while he is visiting the house. And many of those ideas are taken back home with them and grafted into permanent places in their own minds.
Wise words from the professor
There is a conversation in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women between the kind professor Bhaer and the budding author Jo March in which he shares with her some writerly advice that is as timely today as when it was written nearly one hundred fifty years ago.
“All may not be bad, only silly, you know, and if there is a demand for it, I don’t see any harm in supplying it. Many very respectable people make an honest living out of what are called sensation stories,” said Jo, scratching gathers so energetically that a row of little slits followed her pin.
“There is a demand for whisky, but I think you and I do not care to sell it. If the respectable people knew what harm they did, they would not feel that the living was honest. They haf no right to put poison in the sugarplum, and let the small ones eat it. No, they should think a little, and sweep mud in the street before they do this thing.”
So caveat scriptor lest you build your work on a foundation of sand. In so doing, you may be inviting cracks in the foundations of those who read your work. And caveat lector in the books you choose to read. Reading can and should be a wonderful exploration into the good, the true, and the beautiful as long as the architecture of our minds is not only inviting to look at but also strong enough to endure the ages.