What are books?
In 1857, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, an author and later Patchogue resident, would give her own answer: “Books are the natural outgrowth of thought.” In a book, the author not only expresses his thoughts to others, but makes his thoughts into something new apart from himself. Plato observed that books allow author’s to meet people living long after the author himself; they communicate thoughts over great expanses of time and space and even beyond death. It is often observed by readers that you seem to know an author by reading his books.
At the same time there is a distinction to be made between author and book. Oakes Smith noticed that we can like a book and dislike the author. “We are often disappointed,” she wrote, “at the seeming discrepancy between authors and their works, and wonder that such gorgeous, tropic flowers could strike root in those icebergs. We turn away mournfully from the cold, polished manner and artificial words – so different from the glowing, inspired thoughts which held heart and brain entranced till the last page was turned and the last sentence ended. But the chill is the semblance, the warmth the reality.”
In other words, on meeting authors she has found herself disappointed – they have not lived up to their books! Oakes Smith was friends with and supporters of Edgar Allen Poe, Horace Greely, Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thoreau. She also disagreed and argued with many of these literary contemporaries – it is interesting to imagine who might have inspired such a remark.
It may be that the books of an author can be so much like an author as to be unrecognizable when compared with the original. After all, it is in thinking that we are the most ourselves. Books, however, are unchangeable. A book, Oakes Smith noticed, can, somehow, be more real than the person who wrote it.
Elizebth Oakes Smith and her husband, the editor and humorist Seba Smith, lived in Patchogue, owned property, and are buried in Lakeview cemetery. More about the life of Oakes Smith can be found on the local history website as well as the Oakes-Smith website of Professor Timothy Scherman.
The original essay “Books” by Elizabeth Oakes Smith is reproduced on our Local History website.