The Janus reader

The best books are often written in times of trouble. It may be true that a truly good book cannot be written unless under a state of mental duress. And if the external circumstances won’t provide the conditions of that duress, then the words themselves will. For words are both captivity and release, beguilement and truth, obsession and serenity.

Take Augustine’s City of God, one of the most foundational and influential books in the West. It was written when Rome was standing on the brink of destruction. The vision of two worlds, two cities, two mindsets, two ways of looking, one up, one down but both inward, one heavenly, transcendent city, another fortress of immanence and contingency – reflects the very nature of words, their ambivalence and power of transformation.

The reader is a Janus-like figure, looking bothways, ambivalent though fully committed to a double approach, taking words at their face value and yet looking beyond them, where they point or fail to point.

For the Romans, Janus was the god of gates and renewal. For texts, Janus is the tutelary figure presiding over meaning. With his double face, he guarantees that words are renewed with each engagement, that meaning is never static, that the reader is always on the move. As the eyes track the words on the page, the mind is both looking backwords over established meaning and exploring new, futurebound significance.

The act of reading is always, absolutely always, a moment of choice. A choice to stay on the surface or venture on the edge, which is the gateway into the unknown. That’s why reading the same words again and again returns a different experience each time, and with it, the possibility of self-transcendence.

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