Stephen Edgar’s “The Secret Life of Books” is about the nature of reading and the power of literature to affect the reader. The poem personifies books, imagining how they silently plot to draw in their readers, and then moves to a discussion of how the readers are changed by their reading. Edgar structures his poem to illustrate the nature of this relationship between literature and its readers.
“The Secret Life of Books” is divided into five stanzas, each six lines in length. A lyric poem, it is a brief commentary revealing the speaker’s emotions on its topic. Within such a brief length, Edgar has developed a specific structure to each stanza. Of the six lines in a stanza, the first is long (10-12 syllables), the second is short (3-5 syllables), the third and fourth are long, the fifth is short, and the sixth is long. The second and sixth lines of each stanza rhyme, or come close to rhyming, as do the third and fifth. This structure is consistent throughout the entire length of the poem.
The first stanza introduces the idea of books’ after-hours scheming, and describes how they influence the outside world: “they do their work through others/ . . .by the twisting of heart.” The stanza is consistent in voice and character. Each sentence has “they” referring to books as its subject: “They have… They knowâ€¦ they do their work… They have turned the world.” However, the stanza also employs a contradiction to illustrate its theme. On the one hand, the dominant image of books in the stanza is that produced by the simile in lines 3 and 4: “Like invalids long reconciled /To stillness.” Books are incapable of movement and seemingly inactive: “they can’t move.” On the other hand, the stanza describes their effects using language which suggests movement: “They have turned the world/ By the twisting of hearts.” This contrast between images of stasis and kinesis emphasizes the paradox of the poem’s theme: how can inanimate objects produce change?
The next stanza directly raises this question: “What do they have to say and how do they say it?” How can a book speak? This question is not answered directly. Instead it introduces whimsical images of books plotting in “the library/ At night or the sun room.” The stanza also introduces the use of the second person: “something is going on,/ You may suspect…” For the first time in the poem interplay exists between “they” (the books) and “you” (the reader). However, such interaction is only mental-suspicion. The reader has not yet opened the book and begun to read. The stanza is mainly preparatory – it describes the setting (library or sun room), introduces a second character, and, most importantly, creates tension in the poem by bringing up an unanswered question. This quality of unfinishedness is emphasized by Edgar’s use of an incomplete sentence at the end of the stanza. Completion, he suggests, will come later.
The third stanza begins by completing the sentence that ended the previous stanza: “Yet they/ Need you.” The use of “Need” to begin the stanza establishes its dominant idea, that a book needs a reader to become complete. In this, the central stanza of the poem, the reader (“you”) picks up one of “them” and begins to read. Another question is raised: “Why this one?” The answer has been provided by the previous two stanzas’ set-up: the books’ “stratagems” have drawn you in. The stanza contains images of “determinism, the selfish gene,” alluding to science as an attempt to answer our questions. But the author seems to disagree that a “selfish” or other gene causes our choice of reading matter; he prefers his capricious idea of books’ secret midnight strategy sessions. Literature itself is what draws the reader in and it is addictive: “already the blurb/ is drawing in/ Some further text.” To demonstrate this, Edgar again leaves his final sentence of the stanza unfinished, showing how one word leads to the next.
The fourth stanza continues the idea of one book leading to another, an “atlas or gazetteer,” for example, to look up unfamiliar place-names. But in the fourth stanza Edgar moves on from the idea of addictive reading and begins to answer the question posed in stanza two: how do books speak? The answer he provides is that they use the reader, by prompting discussion or provoking thought. In a poem “spare/As a dead leaf’s skeleton,” the reader must provide the words that the author left out. Edgar uses the metaphor of relations between the sexes to describe his idea of how a poem or other work of literature speaks. A piece of literature provides us with a script, but just as “lovers never hear” the script passed “through the sexes,” the reader may never realize that his ideas stem from a book he has read.