I can’t express just how happy I was when I first read the word “bookkeeping,” and it wasn’t because it had three repeated letters in a row. I was strangely joyful at learning there was such a profession. That joy quickly plummeted when I found out what bookkeeping actually is. This memory came back to me this tax season. I realize the word “book” has a storied history and multiple meanings. I’m one of those people who likes to read books about books. In “keeping” books, of course, we mean ledgers that show assets, profits and losses, accounting. These are among the most boring things on the planet for some of us. My imagination dances around all over the place, but it seldom sways to the realm of business. As a young person faced with what bookkeeping is, I was crestfallen.
The idea that you could keep books—not necessarily as a librarian or bookseller—and have that as your job, seemed like an almost Platonic utopia. A world where it was recognized that reading books is a virtue. Even being around them can make me happy. I still live in the world suggested by that form of the word bookkeeping. When I’m sad a trip to a bookstore can usually bring me out of it. Although I have difficulty finding publishers interested in my own books, writing them is a form of therapy. Even this little blog is a way of participating in the keeping of books. At least in an ideal world. Tax season looms when many of us will find out how much we owe to a government we no longer trust. If only more people would read.
Books began, in their earliest forms, as receipts. Marks on clay to prove what you owned. Shortly, however, those mud tablets began to house myths and stories. That’s when the mud became clay. Stories are what conscious minds crave. Even the word “Bible” means “book” (via the circuitous route of naming books after the papyrus reed, which along the northeastern Mediterranean coast was called “Byblos”). These stories, books, came to represent what we hold sacred. Writing is a divine act. Many centuries later books became commodities that could be sold. Ah, and when money enters the equation, bookkeeping soon follows. Perhaps in some distant future utopia we’ll come to a place where words like bookkeeping mean something more than just numbers. Maybe someday bookkeeping will be recognized as far more valuable than mere money.