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Books as Symbols of Awe and Inadequacy

Walking into any bookstore is enough to fill me with complete pointlessness, with unbridled awe. Pick up a book, any book, and see the results of some individual’s years of labor. It is apparent, if you choose to make yourself open to the awareness, that a person has spent a lifetime crafting a network of knowledge, coupled with the practice of some medium of expressing that knowledge, and a book that can be held in one hand is the outcome of that incredible process.

To be in a bookstore, or a library, filled with the intellectual and creative pursuits of humans of all occupations, interests, orientations, physical traits and personalities, is to be aware of all the things which we could not possibly learn in a single lifetime. I cannot read all of these books, I cannot consume their meanings fast enough.

While it is a relief, in a way, that there is knowledge enough in the world to keep us occupied far beyond our dying day, it is also a sorrow that we must choose some, and by that choice, ignore others.

While it is a true good, in a way, that there is so much wisdom and experience among us that I cannot personally embody all of it, it is also a confrontation that I will always be limited by my human form.

I know that one day the sum total of my thoughts will have amounted to something so sublime, something that matters not at all to anyone. I daily make usage of the gifts offered to me by generations before – language, words, comprehension, education, books – without even noticing that I have done so. I cannot say “thank you” to them any more than I can say “you’re welcome” to those who come after me, benefiting from my life without awareness of having done so.

And, too, I give and I give, without any knowledge for which of those offerings will be gifts, which will be burdens, and which will be lost, inconsequentially.

A book is therefore a responsibility, to leave things better than you found them. To do no harm. And a bookstore is something to be filled with all the powerful good possible in this world.

Katherine Oktober Matthews ( is an artist and analyst based in The Netherlands. She writes and edits extensively in the field of art, is the author of Unique: Making Photographs in the Age of Ubiquity, and founder of Riding the Dragon.

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