Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Books can speak to us like God, like men or like the noise of the city we live in. They speak to us like God when they bring us light and peace and fill us with silence. They speak to us like God when we desire never to leave them. They speak to us like men when we desire to hear them again. They speak to us like the noise of the city when they hold us captive by a weariness that tells us nothing, give us no peace, and no support, nothing to remember, and yet will not let us escape.

Books that speak like God speak with too much authority to entertain us. Those that speak like good men hold us by their human charm; we grow by finding ourselves in them. They teach us to know ourselves better by recognizing ourselves in another.

Books that speak like the noise of multitudes reduce us to despair by the sheer weight of their emptiness. They entertain us like the lights of the city streets at night, by hopes they cannot fulfil.

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Part One, chapter XIV (Image Books, 1968, pp. 61-62)

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When Merton writes of books that speak with the noise of the city's multitudes, noise that is ultimately empty, I think he may have anticipated the poetry of John Ashbery, whose clever orchestrations of language do not point to anything higher than the words themselves.