"The Browser's Ecstasy" by Geoffrey O'Brien

The author zeros in on the insatiable need that keeps us going back, again and again, to books.

By Charles Taylor

Published June 12, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

There's a certain type of literary conversation that can drive even people who love literature up the wall. I don't mean the excited jabber you fall into with friends about what you've read recently and loved, what you have to persuade others to read right away. I'm talking about that sort of rarefied discussion of subjects like form that seems so alien to the reasons we start reading and keep reading. Geoffrey O'Brien's "The Browser's Ecstasy" starts as the kind of literary conversation that should be immediately familiar to all sorts of readers. But it soon begins winding down some very fancy labyrinthine paths that -- to be blunt -- become a chore to read.

"The Browser's Ecstasy" is framed as a post-dinner party conversation. O'Brien's description of the gathered friends is a wonderful account of the part books can play for us:

We had read so many novels that our lives (our lives being definable as what became of us in the intervals between reading novels) had themselves become a sort of messy open-ended novel ... Books went from hand to hand among us. With the exchange of a book many a love affair had begun; with a sudden change of opinion about the merits of a particular book had been signaled many a rupture of relations.

O'Brien is a poet as well as a critic, and at his best he functions as both. His 1993 "The Phantom Menace" was a dark-hued rumination on how the storehouse of movies that we carry around in our brain -- often, more terrible movies than great ones -- melds with our experience of the world. All his writing, in fact, makes you feel the sheer weight of the movies and books that you've accumulated over the years, especially the ones you thought you'd forgotten.

In "The Browser's Ecstasy," if I read it correctly, he's attempting to pinpoint the peculiar exchange between writer and book and between book and reader: the sense of an unread book as a dead thing, the ways in which the very act of writing things down contributes to their oblivion -- preservation as the first sign of death. What was once sacred because its survival depended on memorization, O'Brien writes, now becomes a thing that no longer holds the totemic power of the verbal original:

What made perfect sense when the reciter performed it seemed weirdly transformed when translated into letters. The eye found gaps imperceptible to the ear ... When it was being read aloud, everything that lay in store was mysterious, unattainable until its moment of emergence came. Now it was possible to sneak a peek at the next tablet, jump to the end of the adventure.

For O'Brien, "computerization marks the return of language to primordial fluidity." The miniaturization of entire archives "sounds like the ideal setup for a wipeout." But this kind of talk is no Luddite piffle. When O'Brien asks why it's unreasonable to question the storage of "libraries of old literature with barely any relation to the consciousness of a living human," he's owning up to an idea that usually scares literary people to death: that not everything needs to be preserved, that the loss of some works is not a tragedy. He's saying that books don't exist without the reader.

And then there's the further irony that a book may exist for only one reader who finds revelation in what remains obscure to everyone else. O'Brien also touches on the living-in-the-instant randomness of the browser as opposed to the experience of the linear reader. He suggests that the insatiable voracity that keeps sending us to books is an expression both of faith in finding an answer and of pessimism that no answers can be found.

There's no denying the imagination and the dense, dizzying thinking that O'Brien has packed into "The Browser's Ecstasy." But in this slim book, burdened with parables and metaphors and one impossible section that attempts to replicate the sensation of reading a never-ending novel, O'Brien loses himself in the ideas he spins. And I got the uncomfortable sense that that feeling of being lost and helpless in a maze lined with moldering books was what he was aiming at. This brilliant and impossible book is perhaps an inadvertent example of the ecstasy that the browser alone is capable of achieving. Sifting is required.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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