In Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the Waters of Babylon," what are the old books and writings John learns to read?
"By the Waters of Babylon," by Stephen Vincent Benét, depicts a post-apocalyptic society clinging to survival after some horrific event led to the destruction of the previously industrialized civilization. The protagonist of the story, John, decides to take up a mission to the Place of the Gods, viewing this journey to the forbidden area as a spiritual quest.
John says he was "taught how to read in the old books and how to make the old writings," tasks which took him a long time to master but brought him great satisfaction. When John arrives at the Place of the Gods, he discovers a room full of books and writings that are in "tongues" he could not read. He has stumbled upon a personal study or library of sorts containing books written in many different languages. With this discovery in mind, John is determined that his tribe of people must make quests to the Dead Places to recover not just metal, but also these books and writings in order to "make a beginning."
It is clear by the end of the story that the Place of the Gods is actually just the remnants of New York City and that the old books and writings are just that—the intellectual remains of the people who lived in New York City before disaster struck. While the scrap metal they recover may help the tribe to stay alive, John believes the recovery of knowledge will be their ultimate salvation.
The old books and writings that John learns to read are most likely books and writings that were left over from the time before the world was destroyed. John tells his readers that priests are allowed to go to the Dead Places. We are told that priests go there to look for metal, but more than likely the priests bring back magazines and books that they find in the former towns and houses that are the Dead Places. What's unfortunate is that John never specifically tells his readers what the old writings were. Books? Probably. But fiction or nonfiction? I tend to think that a few of them were textbooks and that is why John knows how to do basic first aid. Textbooks also tend to have a lot of pictures of people. Especially health textbooks for example. That would teach first aid and show John pictures of what the gods dressed like.
"We know how they were dressed from the book . . ."
We can infer that these are books and writings left from the civilization that was destroyed--our civilization, as we discover at the story's conclusion. John explains that he has learned much knowledge and many secrets from reading, and he has learned how to write. Only priests and those who will become priests know of the books and writings. Others believe that the priests "do all things by chants and spells." One of the many secrets John has learned is "how to stop the running of blood from a wound," a basic first-aid technique. A clear indication that these are books that belonged to the lost civilization is that John knows how "the gods" dressed. He says, "We know how they were dressed from the book . . . ."