"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.” – Bertolt Brecht
1. Popular parlance is filled with catchy phrases about the ways in which books can be harnessed for purposes of defense and/or offence. Chances are good that if you have spent time around librarians, book lovers, libertines, or radicals, you will have heard some variation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous comment that “books are weapons” or (more fully) “books are weapons in the war of ideas” (the latter statement even appeared on a propaganda poster). On a slightly similar note you may be familiar with the oft repeated saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” – which may not specifically mention books but which still suggests that the written word (which is often printed in a book) is a mighty, and dangerous, tool. These phrases transform libraries into armories, bookshelves into weapon racks, and every reader you see on the subway into a gun slinger. All of which is to say: books may be weapons. Granted, that does not meant that individuals have received any kind of formal instruction in how to use books as weapons. And, as we (hopefully) are all aware, those who attempt to use a weapon without proper instruction run the risk of harming themselves quite seriously. Thus, if you are planning on using a book as weapon – if you are hoping to use one to defend yourself or to make a dangerous swipe at another person – it is very important that you consider exactly how it is that you can use the aforementioned object for such purposes. While what follows is in no way an exhaustive guide, it will hopefully provide you with the basic training you need to prevent you from smashing yourself over the head with the heavy tome you are swinging. Also, as with all of our advice, follow it at your own peril.
2. Perhaps the primary, if still most important, skill that one must master in trying to become a skilled warrior in the way of the book is to perfect the ancient art of actually reading the book. Every single book is an instruction manual for its own use. And if you cannot be bothered to take the time to read the instructions, you should not be surprised when the item fails to perform as you expected. This may sound like obvious advice, so totally aimed at a tyro as to be banal, but this is a technique that you neglect at your own peril! It is the equivalent of playing scales on an instrument – no matter how skilled you have become it is still vital for you to continually enhance your comfort in this most basic of areas. As you become steadily more skilled in the combat techinque of “having actually read the book” you will gradually come to realize that most books contain words, and that these words are often brought together to form sentences. Furthermore, between the covers of a single book there may be multiple sentences. Truly! There are some books out there that contain thousands and thousands of sentences! Oftentimes these sentences will be joined together in what the initiated mysteriously dub “paragraphs.” Beyond this, it sometimes happens that these strange blocks of texts are brought together under the heading of “chapter.” And a single book can contain multiple chapters, along with other oddities such as introductions, conclusions, indices, and appendices. If you are going to use a book as a weapon you must carefully practice the technique of reading all of these elements (including the footnotes and endnotes). Yes, such training can be laborious – but if you truly believe that a book is a weapon you should take the time to make sure you know how to properly swing the one you are planning on using.
3. You should know, many a sorry soul has attempted to raise a book to deliver the winning blow only to find their thrust parried by a cocked eyebrow and the counterattack of “you haven’t actually read that book, have you?” If this blow is allowed to land there is little that one can do to recover. Indeed, when using a book as a weapon you must be aware (and beware) that your opponent may well be skilled in the ways of the very text with which you are slashing at them. In fact, they may be more than familiar with it, the may have read it too! Their superior knowledge of a text (based on actually having read it) is the solid shield against which your flimsy sword (as you haven’t actually read the text) shatters. Those who have actually read a given book can easily spot the flaws in their foes footsteps whilst engaging in book based combat. One of the telltale signals of those who try to use books as weapons but who have not ever mastered the first technique of actually reading the book, is that they fail to understand just how many words are in a single books – such individuals may confidently jab or thrust with a clever quotation – but one who has actually read the book, and who understands the scale of the book will be equipped with the mighty weapon known as context. And when using a book to defend yourself, or when using a book to attack somebody else, it is essential that you understand the context of the words you are using! Or to put this more plainly, you need to have read the full book, chapter, and paragraph from whence the line you’re quoting comes. It is true that legend tells of various vagabonds who authoritatively engage in the fiercest of melee using books that they almost certainly have not read – but you should know that most of those tales end with the tragic downfall of that majestic duelist when they make a fatal misstep.
4. When considering what kind of weapon a book is, it can be useful to consider what kind of weapon a book is not. Hopefully this list will help clear up some of this confusion:
In other words, a book may be a weapon, but it is unlike the ones you find in the arms and armor exhibit in most museums.
5. As you spend more and more time learning how to use a book as a weapon it may slowly occur to you that there are a lot of books out there in the world. A whole heck of a lot of books. And as intimidated as you may feel when you become aware of the sheer scale of the quantity of books out there, this overwhelming feeling will only grow more maddening as you realize that you lack the necessary language skills to master many of those books. Thus, it should steadily occur to you that a single book is like a bolt for a crossbow – it is pointy, dangerous and can still do serious damage if used properly…but for it to truly work to devastating effect one needs to be able to use it in conjunction with the larger apparatus. Consider the following: books are written by writers, and oftentimes these writers have written (brace yourself) multiple books! A single book by that writer is a hefty rock to heave at your opponents, but if you have read all of that writer’s work it is like outfitting yourself with a catapult! Books are highly complicated weapons. Yes, they may be easy to fire – but first you need to make sure that you have learned how to aim them properly. This transcends the need to simply read many books by a single author, instead you should read many books by many authors. It will certainly increase your battle readiness in certain tactical spheres if you choose to become intensely well-read in a given specialty or amongst those associated with a particular “school of thought” – but if books are weapons it is obviously wise to teach yourself how to successfully deploy many of them. To recap: a book is a crossbow bolt, multiple books by one author are that bolt plus the actual crossbow, and many books are equivalent to having a well-armed and highly trained army at your command.
6. When selecting which book you are going to use as a weapon you should consider some of the particular affordances of that particular volume. Here is a, non-exhaustive, list to help you think through this matter:
7. There are some people who will argue that, just as books are weapons so too are movies and television shows weapons. This is not the time or place to put forth a definitive argument regarding the veracity of such claims. However, this is the time to indicate that having seen a movie or television show based on a book does not prepare you to use that book as a weapon. And reading the novelization of a movie based on a book, also does not prepare you to talk about the original book. Many a would be knight has tried to rapidly advance in the ranks through deploying such shortcuts in terms of training (another popular shortcut: reading online summaries) – but the usual result is that one finds oneself attempting to swing a sword that one never learned how to handle properly. Furthermore, those who have spent years training in using books as weapons are highly skilled at spotting the signs that a person has only actually seen the movie – even if they’re talking about the book. Knowledge based on a summary or a film can still allow an individual to put on a good performance, and fortune may favor them and they may even strike a lucky blow, but such a preparation tactic is risky. You’re really better off reading the entire book. Also, it is worth keeping in mind, there are many books that have never been turned into movies or television programs. Most books, actually.
8. One of the problems of approaching books as weapons is that it obfuscates the differences between books. Here the intent is not to harp upon the various different shapes and sizes of books – but to instead make a simple serious, if potentially controversial, judgment call. Namely: some books are bad. Really. Some books are just terrible. And if you are planning on using a book as a weapon you should take a moment to ask yourself: “is this really the type of book I want to bring with me into battle?” There are lots and lots of books out there in the world – some of them are useful weapons, and some of them are not. Some of them will allow you to jab with devastating force and send your opponents scurrying for cover – while others will make you feel as though you have entered the lists armed with a rotten carrot.There are some books that it is worth spending years training with so that you can become adept at wielding them as weapons…but there are also some books that ultimately just damage you. It was previously mentioned that you should be prepared to avoid the counter attack of “you haven’t actually read that book, have you?” but you should simialrly be prepared to avoid giving your opponent the opportunity to balk: “wait, you’re using that book? Seriously!?” Or, as Jacques Ellul put it in his book Propaganda (which I have read in its entirety):
“the important thing is not to be able to read, but to understand what one reads, to reflect on and judge what one reads.” (108)
If you are planning on using a book as a weapon, make sure you know what you are using, and make sure that you are using it responsibly.
9. En garde!
The picture of the book gun is from the artist Robert The’s “bookguns” project.
Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
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