Yesterday our “Let’s Talk” group met for its monthly session in the bookstore. This is an open-invitation group that chooses a one-word topic, rotates moderator duties, and has a grand time dissecting the ideas involved. Past topics have included evil, debt, karma, suffering, forgiveness, and–last night–ghosts.
Many tales were told of spirits returning, and as we shared stories, a theme emerged: that the returns we were speaking of were almost all benevolent, and that often even those of us (like me) who have never seen a ghost have felt presences, sensed weights or feelings that gave the impression of someone–a loved one or a stranger–being there.
That led us to the idea of a word I’m not sure I can spell: nefesh (that’s the phonetic version) the spirit that animates, the complete life of a being, in Hebrew. That word appears fairly often in the Bible, and more often than we might think in our lives, even if that’s not the term we used to define it.
The weight of being, the sense of someone’s presence, stays in their physical stuff, was what the group basically agreed. Call it memory projected by the bereaved, call it animation from beyond by the departed; just don’t dismiss it, because even those who have no truck with ghosts and goblins still have encounters with this nefesh thing when they enter a departed loved one’s room, pick up her hairbrush, smell his aftershave.
Could books be a prime example? People read book for all sorts of reasons: entertainment, information, enlightenment, to score points, to follow the crowd, to escape. Whatever the reason, does the reader leave a tiny piece of self behind in it? Not the jammy fingerprint at the top of the page or the grease spot from the burger–although we see plenty of those in the trade. I mean do people leave the weight of their presence behind when they read a book? Rather than your picking up a blank slate full of ideas for you to accept or reject as you choose, are you picking up (in a pre-loved volume) a little bit of the ethos the previous reader left? Does the book have a wisps and whiffs of what those who went before thought of it?
It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I really had considered books as idea houses: take them or leave them, but what’s in here is written down, pinned like a butterfly for study rather than one to admire in flight. But what if, oh what if books that have been read twenty, thirty times by different people carried just the hint of what people thought about the ideas contained therein? Would the dissonance of conflicting ideas create white noise to rub out acceptance? Or previous approval aid the willing suspension of disbelief?
Sometimes, when I’m handling the few very old books we have in our shop, 1800s titles, the tome in my hands feels heavy with solemnity, a weight beyond paper and print. Perhaps it really is nefesh, a sense of all the people who have read it before, and left the breath of their thoughts on its pages.