Can a book be beautiful?

When we think about beauty these days a large number of potential objects come to mind; anything from a well-executed goal to a particularly difficult math problem may elicit the term. This has not, of course, always been the case. To the ancient world beauty was associated with the good, the true, and the divine. Form, measure, and proportion were considered crucial elements of the beautiful, and the thinking involved famously led to the creation of works of art like this (Venus de Milo from the Louvre):

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Symmetry has also long been associated with the beautiful, connected in with order and harmony. Denzel Washington is considered one of the world’s most beautiful people and it has often been said that his features are remarkably symmetrical.

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As noted, however, common usage has extended beauty much further from the purely visual; to which it was never bound anyway. It has been argued that beauty is a quality that is possessed and can be recognized, a secondary quality (that is, sensation – rather than fact – conveying, such as a color) that is observable and dependent on response. It has also been argued that beauty is not a quality but an idea, and that something that causes that idea to form in us is beautiful. This raises the question of experience, and on that we may wish to consider Monroe Beardsley’s five criteria to judge whether an experience is aesthetic or not: 1) object directedness; this is a must, and of the following four three must also be present, 2) a sense of freedom, 3) a sense of detachment, 4) discovery, and 5) wholeness. We can perhaps imagine taking this list to an art museum but possibly not to the library. There our approach to a book may be of more importance, and therefore the notion of disinterest comes to the fore. This is an idea developed by Immanuel Kant that connects pleasure with an object perceived entirely for its own sake, regardless of issues of possession or use. Arthur Schopenhauer added that removing oneself from practical concerns when engaged in such perception provides an out from the suffering that seems to ground our human nature. Our interests and desires are suspended and we engage with the beautiful purely for the sake of the beautiful. This is clearly a far more profound way of thinking about the beautiful than that behind the exclamation of “Beauty!” shouted by someone watching a hockey game. Or is it? The same root elements seem to be in play if we look hard enough.

Still, this seems far from our experience of reading. Is the manner in which we engage with a book at all like the way in which we interact with a painting, sculpture, piece of music, or photography (to name but a few)? Consider the two well-known books below; would either of them qualify as beautiful? Perhaps both? Neither?

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I would be prepared to argue that Pasternak’s does but Vonnegut’s does not. This is by no means a criticism of Vonnegut’s work nor his oeuvre generally – I am a big fan of the man’s writing -, however as a reader I find that Vonnegut’s novels and short stories are often about the characters and events contained within them rather than being expressions of the characters and events contained within them. I chose Pasternak’s work as a counterbalance here because whatever lyricism it contains such would no doubt be very largely lost in translation; there must therefore be something else to it. What I think sets Pasternak’s work and others like it apart is the way in which we the reader are led to deeply associate ourselves and our own ways of being with the protagonist(s). Even if we think the good titular doctor a romantic fool we find ourselves empathizing with his plight and the struggles he engages in to continue to express himself as a human being, as one human being, in the midst of all the externals raging around him. Even in our most prosaic moments we can feel as he does, and it is that connection that touches us the way a great painting can. Contra Schopenhauer then, or perhaps better put as Schopenhauer with a caveat, when it comes to literature as art I think that the way in to suffering (suffering with, not as) that such can provide is what qualifies the writing as beautiful, and from there, possibly, to art.

I offer the above merely as some initial thoughts on a very nuanced topic. As with all things academic there is a vast literature on the question of literature as art and I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of many of the issues involved. I would be very happy to hear counterarguments and/or other perspectives. Surely the well here is deep.

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I referenced the very accessible Key Terms in Philosophy of Art by Tiger C. Roholt (Bloomsbury, 2013) when writing this post.

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