The Immortality of Books

Have you ever noticed that book reports, synopses, reviews, and query letters are written in present tense, even if the book they’re about is told in past tense? Have you ever stopped to really consider why (beyond the fact that it’s how your grammar teacher told you to do it)? I got to thinking about this the other day, and the whole concept fascinated me.

A screenshot of the plot summary for The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson on Goodreads,
which, by the way, I highly recommend to everybody.

If I shuck my familiarity with this convention long enough to view it logically with fresh eyes, the whole practice seems utterly counter-intuitive. There are other options that strike me as much more reasonable, namely:

1) Write the summary in the same tense as the book.

So The Sky is Everywhere would still be present tense, but Off Season by Jack Ketchum (which I also highly recommend, though not to everybody) would be summarized in past tense.

2) Write all summaries in past tense, sense the person summarizing them has already read them, and thus the events have already happened.

I mean, think about it. Even if you’re currently reading a book, you usually talk about it in past tense. Your spouse walks through the room and you say, “Anita just got them all in big, big trouble,” not, “Anita is getting them all in big, big trouble.” That sounds… not wrong, just odd. Even future tense (“Anita is about to get them all into big, big trouble.”) sounds more natural than that.

But, as I’ve already established, only one of these options is accepted — and the most awkward one at that. All summaries are present tense. Why?

To answer that question, I had to take my mind off the writer of the review and the writer of the book and train it on the reader of the review – and thus the potential future reader of the book.

Future is the key word. That reader has not yet read the book, so for them, the events in the summary have not happened. I’ll let that sink in a minute.

The plot is frozen in time, ready to verb itself into action when you read the words. Until then, it’s like it doesn’t exist. It’s waiting to happen. What an incredible concept.

If you haven’t read a book yet, nothing in the book has happened yet, so the summary wouldn’t make sense in past tense. And since summaries are almost always written for those who haven’t already read something, they belong in present tense. Hell, they could be in future tense if it weren’t so damn clunky.

This tells me several rather wonderful things:

  • Books, quite literally (pun intended), never die, because they’re always happening.
  • Books are always waiting for someone new to read them, to re-happen.
  • Books are not endless. Every book I’ve ever read has ended. But they are never-ending, as someone new can always pick them up.
  • When you think of it that way, books are immortal.

I don’t know about you, but that gives me a lot of joy to think about. Now I would like to pose a tiny little question.

Is that, perhaps, maybe, by any chance… the reason we all so desperately want to publish one?

Is it possible that it’s why we like to read them? Re-read them? What do you think? Am I over-romanticizing it, or are books our best shot at immortality?

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  • -j-

    If you’re over-romancing it, so be it… best romance EVER!

    I love present tense. I write in present tense all the time, even in my fiction, so writing book reviews in present tense feels very natural to me. All that being said, I love your thought process, and – immortal books! – your conclusion sounds right (and full of yayness) to me.

    • Yayness?! I love it! Thanks. =)

      I write in present tense too, a lot of times, and it’s always a strange shift for me to go from one to the other.

  • I think all of your reasoning is completely sound! Of course stories are immortal. Of course they are waiting to be read. Similarly, stories are no longer the author’s once they are released; they become the reader’s, because every person will take something different (as unique as each reader themselves) from the book. Isn’t it fabulous to think of how big and important stories really are? 😀


    • Yes! Dang it, why didn’t I think of that? You’re right; they do become the reader’s. Perfectly said.

  • Cathryn Leigh

    Okay, -j- and Ashele said everything I could possibly say and more!

    :} Cathryn / Elorithryn

  • Mortuary Report

    Hell, you’re underromancing it, if anything! This totally applies to much older stories than what’s been printed recently. Think about mythology, the stories that have been carried through the ages… Total immortality. And I think it’s so interesting that it’s something we just innately do and recognize, without necessarily putting it into words like you have. It’s not something I actively though about prior to this post!

    • Absolutely! The fact that so many old stories have survived to this day proves their staying power. Which means that in a few hundred years, some of today’s stories will still be around, too. Very cool.

  • Stories are definitely immortal, but they aren’t unchanging. Think about all the adaptations of Jane Austen or the King Arthur legend, in which people take familiar things and try to recreate them. But even when the text is unchanging, it’s different for everyone and different each time we go back and read it again. I don’t think it’s over-romanticized at all!

    • You’re so right. That ties back into what Ashlee said, that once the story’s written, it belongs to the readers. We each make a story into what we want or need it to be, applying it to our own perspectives and times. That’s pretty cool too, when you think about it. =)