Up close and circular

Up close and circular

By Ingrid Gnerlich

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Over the past year, if you were a bird in the habit of soaring over the suburban neighborhood in which I live, you would have seen me walking. Down the street to the left, down the street to the right, down another street to the left and across to the entryway of a park, and then off to the right, following the narrow three-kilometer path tracing its perimeter—and then, completing the shape of a circle, drawn as if with a slightly shaking hand, I would return home. Sometimes, upon reaching the park gates, I would go left instead of right, straight instead of left. But generally, I would go counterclockwise. I liked to see the trees emerge in a certain succession.

It was all linear, my series of steps taken one after the other, around the muddy patch, over the rivulets of roots crossing the path, past the copse of downy birches and the willow by the sometimes rain-full, sometimes algae-blanketed pond, up the hill to the oak tree raining acorns, through the stands of conifers, feathery, spikey, totem-like. But it was also always circular, a curving line spent sharing thoughts with the trees for a while, before the ends of my loop would unite with the sound of the front door closing behind me.

Some people might be bothered by traveling in circles over and over again, imagining that this denotes a lack of progress. It is true that my circles this past year have been smaller in diameter, compared with other years. As an aspect of my work, I used to travel fairly often by train and by plane to meet in person with existing and potential authors in various countries. But, I’ve realized something on my miniaturized, repetitious expeditions this year. A fundamental beauty of circles is the linearity they contain. In that linearity, in the steps one takes as one forges or traces a path at a given time, a unique experience manifests itself. The hidden dimension of circles, which the familiarity of their shape causes us sometimes to forget, is that they actually contain infinite cycles, never the same twice.

But, lest I forget, you are on a publisher’s website, and you probably want to read something related to books. What do circles have to do with books? Obviously, answering directly would be at odds with the theme of this essay. So, you’ll just have to wait a bit, while I first think for a moment about the past.

When I was a little girl, if I was caught out between visits to the public library, I would reread books I already owned. I didn’t mind. I liked following the lines of words that emerged in familiar succession, turning the pages from right to left until I reached the last thought, and then softly closed the back cover, like a door, behind it. I liked to experience the repetition of the words and ideas, finding comfort in their familiarity and joy in the details I hadn’t noticed in prior readings.

Now, some decades later, I work with books—proto-books, finished books, and everything in between. I think about how the path of any reader through any book is incremental and linear. Eyes travel across the letters imprinted on the flesh of trees, sparking thoughts, making meaning. I know (and you know) that, after reading words that are not your own, you are not the same—neither the first time nor the second. You change—and the path of words that you travel, even if familiar, is never the same twice. 

However, while books are never the same twice—because neither are you—you still generally know how things will go in the broadest sense. You know that you will reach the end of a book (one would hope), and you will be changed (if you’re lucky), and you will close the cover behind the final word with a barely audible sound. Perhaps this is why books feel so comforting, so robust, why we love them so much. They are so infinitely varied inside—molding themselves dynamically against the ever-evolving topographical map of our own psyche—and yet, no matter what path we take through them, or how much we change on that path, we know: we will come full circle in the end. We will return home and close the door.

Books are circles. I think about that truth as I walk through the park near my house, while I notice the arrival of autumn. With the season, new books are bursting out of our seasonal catalog and those of other publishers like rain from the clouds, like acorns and chestnuts from the trees. This season of books carries with it feelings I remember from the past… Books shower down as the nuts ripen and leaves fall, and I feel joy in witnessing that denouement. But, this year, the sweetness and familiarity of their arrival also feels poignant.

This past year, during which we created the books now being published, was one in which my colleagues and I were physically separated. As we dispersed and distanced ourselves, cutting back on or eliminating our commutes and travels, the individual circles we inscribed with our efforts became smaller. But, what also happened in this year? We came together in astounding ways. We became intensely aware of how our individual circles are linked. We focused on a new and bigger circle—the one that we create through our work together.

Guided by a philosophy of collegiality and collaboration, enabled by good technology, good leadership, good will, and good faith—in each other, in our authors, in our books—we worked hard on strengthening our connections. Commissioning editors worked with authors to link ideas to the page, connect introductions to conclusions, and refine knowledge, meaning, and argument in response to constructive critique. Production editors and managers, copyeditors, designers, illustration specialists and illustrators, compositors, and printers worked to bridge the profound distance between a manuscript and a finished book. Marketing, sales, and publicity specialists, sales reps, social media experts, digital and audio publishers, reprint managers, warehouse workers strove to bring the books we made to booksellers and to readers’ hands, eyes, ears, and minds. We realized that we make a bigger, stronger circle together, and we worked on tightening and strengthening the links. We found joy and success in that work. We were blessed with bounty—a record-breaking harvest.

But now, the birds-eye view zooms out again, making an ever-widening gyre that offers a larger perspective. Another circle, a greater chain to contemplate. And I wonder, what will happen? I wish I knew. It hurts to say the truth: things have changed and may never be the same. I might take the same path through the trees, turn the pages of a well-loved book from right to left. I might like the familiar, the predictable—with some surprises, to keep things interesting. But, it’s worth remembering: I never really could take exactly the same path twice. I walk out of the door, and the world is different, and I am a different person, too, and anything can happen.

It’s impossible to know what the future will hold. But, I also know that I have never read the same book twice—even when I have—and in the certainty of change, a certain freedom can be found. Up close, books are circular, taking us on a familiar route, cover to cover; but inside, there are infinite opportunities to make new connections and progress. There will come a day when we will realize that the long line we have walked has come full circle, that the time has come for us to close the cover on this particular story. And with a barely audible sigh, we will think about what we have learned. We might each answer differently. But speaking for myself, I’ve learned something about the beauty of a circle. I’ve learned that hidden dimensions can emerge from within a familiar shape. When the path suddenly looks changed, the potential for evolution has materialized. What will happen this year? I don’t know. No one can. But, I do know that a book is a circle— and, as I make my way through the trees, over the roots, past the muddy patch, around the corners and down the streets, finding my way home, I know I have faith in the infinite creativity of the circle of people who make them.

Ingrid Gnerlich is Publisher for the Sciences at Princeton University Press.