I have just had again the odd experience of reading a book for what I knew would be its last time, feeling it fall to pieces even as I read it. I found it in the free section at the local public library booksale, and it was free for good reason. It lacked any spine whatsoever. Its covers had been reattached with scotch tape. It was missing several of the first and last pages, making do without the publication information or a dedication or the list of the other exciting offerings that would have been available from the same publisher at my local bookstore forty years ago. It was, as I knew even when I took it home with me, fit only to be read one last time.
This is not the first time that I have read a book into oblivion, and I always find it a singular sensation, as if I am somehow attending to a death bed, not with the intimacy of a friend or a family member, but with the distance of a priest reading the last rites, or maybe of a doctor offering palliative care. It is as if I am just coming to know these texts as they are preparing to die, as if my coming to know them is in fact an essential part of this preparation. My knowing them will only bring about their passing. When I have finished with them, they will be finished indeed. There will never be anyone who will know them again.
I recognize, of course, that these sensations fail to understand these dying texts as the reproductions that they are. I am wilfully passing over the fact that they exist in other copies and other editions and other translations and other adaptations, that their deaths are less the deaths of organisms than the deaths of singular and replaceable cells. Even so, it is only through these cells that I come to know the organisms as such. They are the places where I discover what the organisms are and what they might come to be, so it is perhaps not entirely romantic of me to feel a sense of loss as I read them, knowing that my reading will bring them to their end. The abstract texts that they represent can never care about what they were, but I will always know that it was they who took me for a friend as they lay dying.