The Book As We Have Known It

This is my essay, selected as overall winner in the AHRC’s 10th Anniversary essay competition.

In the early 1970s my family moved to a new house. On the low, built-in bookcases in the front room we found a number of volumes, books left by the previous occupant; it was as though to leave the shelves empty would have been inhospitable.   The books were a welcome, of sorts. The bookcases offered an ideal location for our Childcraft How and Why Library (in 15 shiny grey volumes) from volume 1 – Poems and Rhymes to volume 15 – Guide and Index. These American books could tell you everything you needed to know about the world, from The World and Space to How Things Change, from What People Do to Pioneers and Patriots – full of the kinds of information children can now access quickly through digital technology. Our new found books, our gifts, included Thomas B. Costain’s Below the Salt, soon to become the first book of fiction my Dad read in full. Ivanhoe and The Cricket on the Hearth in their blue and salmon jackets stayed unread on the shelves (we would not have entertained the idea of throwing them away) but soon made room for Jonathon Livingston Seagull, numerous novels and anthologies, The Female Eunuch and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. It never occurred to me, as a child, that the books we found were perhaps the unwanted relics of the previous owner’s old life. Perhaps she was very pleased to leave them behind?

Those well-painted built-in bookcases demanded to be filled and my mother obliged; as she gained qualifications at night school she continued to add to the collection, books on Economics, Social History and Religion. As the books increased so did the antipathy between my parents.  Books can herald domestic division as well as knowledge; in Tony Harrison’s poem Book Ends, he is as helpless and alone as his Dad, on his mother’s death:

….Back in our silences and sullen looks,

for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s

not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.

Social mobility through learning for selected clever working-class children of Harrison’s generation did cause divisions between young people ambitious to study and their Dads who, like the poet’s, were often “worn out on poor pay.”  The divide now between parents and children is not about books but about an all-pervading digital technology that not only seems to give instant answers but may, as Susan Greenfield has argued, also have a profound effect on neurological development and the wiring of young brains.

In my analogue childhood I visited my local library every week. The red brick Victorian building had a fine mahogany and glass revolving door that hissed like a stopping bus. Once through to the other side I discovered a sense of my own enquiry, through eclectic and untutored decision-making. To be oneself in a high windowed room of books, any one of which may be taken home, offers a memorable experience of freedom and joy. I selected books by name and colour, at first, drawn to their sounds and illustrations – Smith of Wootton Major by Tolkien, The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively. I borrowed books on beetles and birds, pond life and ghost stories, everything I could find by Paul Gallico and Leon Garfield, books on pollution, curious books about saints, Olga da Polga by Michael Bond and later, in my teens, poetry by poets with mysterious names; I am grateful to the unknown municipal benefactor who ordered the works of Wallace Stevens and Lawrence Ferlinghetti for Widnes Library as this set me on my lifelong search for new poems and collections.

The book as a physical artefact is the embodiment of the human spirit, an object mysteriously inanimate yet human at once with its spine and body, weight and language, history and character and its potential for decay. Its contents may be high-minded or frivolous, deeply engaged with philosophical thought or comedic. The book can be many and varied things. It also collects in its pages the evidence of individual human thinking and of a life that has gone into making the book, and reading it; with its bus tickets and pencil markings, turned down pages, coffee stains and precious post-cards it possesses a mind of its own. A book is a gift and a reckoning. When decanted into an electronic file and transformed into digital information it is disembodied and can only be found through a series of letters and codes typed into a machine. A book itself is never a machine.   Although both electronic versions and physical books have a psychical reality it is the physical materiality of the book that makes it an object of human experience, memory and emotion. The precariousness of finding texts on-line carries no sense of deep sorrow when a link disappears; the nature of the internet is change and ephemerality denoted in the concept of the virtual (the almost, the nearly) and lost at the touch of a button or a failure in the national grid.

While the book can be a source of magic and enchantment that may turn us away from the world, as it does for Prospero in The Tempest when he declares my library was dukedom large enough,” this turning away does not last. We must all return from the book to eat, sleep, love, forgive our brothers and reclaim our rightful places in our own worlds.

The book is an emblem of slow technology, of collaboration and research, of editorial labour and making, of proofing and publishing. It represents, encompasses and embodies the human search for knowledge.

Digital technology may offer access to new avenues of intellectual enquiry and research and big data that no personal library could offer especially liberating in undeveloped countries; however, this does not mean it democratises the written word simply because we can all now become citizen journalists etc., The writing that keeps thousands of young people behind their keyboards or glued to their smartphones has little to do with literature, knowledge or democracy, or indeed companionship. At its worst it endorses a deluded solipsism that keeps the phone-user alone and unfulfilled as he or she imagines the world to be at his or her fingertips, talking (writing) but unheard.

The book is changing but its physical form remains the key to communitarian thought and has been one of the most important social and psychological celebrations of human reason. It still accompanies us at sacramental moments and offers us a guide to the world. The book carries family dust and the taste of cigarettes, stains of tea and marginalia. It is an object of desire in which we can find our ancestors and the imaginary paths to unlived lives. It is precisely because of the social significance of the book as a democratic symbol as well as an object of intimate and familial encounter that we recoil at the prospect of its destruction.

The Empty Library Memorial by Israeli sculptor, Micha Ullman can be found in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, underground. It was commissioned to mark the 60th anniversary of Nazi book-burning in the same square when more than 20,000 books were destroyed by students and Nazi party members in May 1933. The book-burners were keen to destroy the works of Marx, Freud, Einstein, Brecht, Proust, and many more; Joseph Goebbels characterized the students’ actions as clearing up the debris of the past, as he pronounced “Jewish intellectualism is dead.”

Ullman’s Memorial is marked by the words of German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” – “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” Ullman says that the two important materials in this work are emptiness and silence: “The emptiness is an anti-fire substance. The library is not burning. Ideas and thoughts cannot be burned.” The unburning of books conceptually realized in these empty shelves is also a memorial to the countless dead.

In digital technology books are not being burned, but rather divorced from human touch and the senses.

What cannot be denied is that the book as we have known it, with its respected authors (and sometimes disrespected ones) with its weight and perfumes, its promises and memories, its rich buttermilk pages for cutting, its infinite forgiveness and welcome when we return to it and fail yet again to reach the end, its beautiful inscription written long ago in ink by someone beloved now dead; the book is one of the richest gifts of human encounter and expression. What is lost must itself become a subject of literary and intellectual engagement for we cannot quite know what we are doing if we bid the book (the analogue book) farewell; or perhaps it’s just adieu. The book will remain perhaps in small print-runs, in special editions in print-on-demand for those of us who long for its physical presence, while digital-readers can access the same texts in their own clean ways.

[This is the essay link on the AHRC website: ESSAY]

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