I used to believe in the humble book. There was a time I was certain that nothing could come between us and our fistfuls of musky scented yellow pages; that undeniable sense of character imparted by time and the tender hands of countless companions. Somehow I was sure that no matter how technologically advanced we became, nothing could possibly replace an authentic and unassuming hard cover.
There’s something deeply romantic about the book; a physical collection of words and sentiments, whose compilation is tangible evidence that as a people, we have existed. Through the book we happily accept the love and laughter, tears and tragedies of others; a testament to the human condition. Then when we’re done, we pass it on so that those words that shook us might wake the senses of a new reader. In that moment when we hand it over, we send our own story wordlessly with it; an unspoken yet undeniable shared history that can be sensed in the margins of every page. The happy knowledge that the leaves you now turn have been caressed by some number of others, binding you with your humanity, like the linking fingers of a best friend.
I was wrong, of course. I have always been, above all else, embarrassingly naive. How green to imagine that, while the rest of the world became increasingly clinical, uninterested in their brother and the intimacy of breathing someone else’s air, the defenceless book could survive. No one wants to own something that’s been handled by an unfamiliar other any more. We want to live apart. Possess our own things. Selfishly believe the world is ours; that we are the only one. Populations are booming, but even as we’re forced to dwell on top of one another, moving ever higher into an unconquered sky, we are slamming tight our shutters.
Needless to say, there will always be stories. We’re too governed by ego to let the story die; we see ourselves in every narrative and our sense of self importance is affirmed. But books and stories, those words that were once synonymous, are about to be broken apart. Driven by our need for efficiency, we can now download our own version of the texts we wish to read. These days we need not even leave the house. What a blow of cruel irony when the interwebs adopted the phrase connectivity.
Like so many things, it’s come to pass that every book you own can be uniquely yours; you read it once but do not pass it on. The pages are ever crisp and white; untarnished as a surgeon’s scalpel. But the romance is gone. In our hunger for perfection and instant gratification we have sliced off and slaughtered the glorious romance.
It’s been estimated that within this decade, electronic books will have completely replaced commercially available paper publications. There are of course, many advantages to the electronic book. Affordability is one; for the time being, they are certainly cheaper. Owning an electronic reader also means you can have countless titles at your finger tips. Many people are also citing the environmental card, claiming that the e book is better for the environment. I’m not sure I buy this one. While I’ve done exactly no research on the subject, I can’t believe the process involved with constructing these little gadgets is particularly sparing on the fossil fuels.
What do you think about our move toward electronic books?
Have you taken the leap to e-reader?
How do you feel about the humble hard cover being made redundant?
I’ve never really understood the depth of bad feeling that “proper readers” have towards “grown-ups” reading Harry Potter books, it smacks of adolescent elitism and a condemnatory bias based on a book’s sleeve (Hey there should be a saying about that?) for surely by their own logic they couldn’t have read the books themselves? So it’s hardly the strongest base from which to attack?
J K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series is about to release her new novel “aimed at adults” and I wonder if the Potter snobbery will cling to this new title as well. I will not critique the original books themselves (I’ve only read a couple) beyond saying that I found them hamstrung by their own logic until the point in the story where it was no longer convenient for the plot progression, at which point new rules were added which circumvented the bothersome pre-established rationality – the resulting inconsistencies got right on my tits.
But it happens in this particular genre due to the flexible nature of magic (Witness Aslan’s resurrection and the subsequent awkward exposition in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The concept of a normal boy (or girl as in the worst witch series which trod very similar ground over a decade before) finding that they are chosen for a higher destiny undeniably appeals to something primal in all of us, whatever age, it taps in to the hope that we are all special, that the mundanity of our normal lives can be shed: that adventures are waiting for us all. My fondness for this series though, is as a way of reintroducing those that would never normally read a book to the power of fiction. The real magic of the Potter phenomenom was that children and adults were and are picking up books again; they’re discussing characters and motivation, asking themselves what they would do? Morality, hypotheticals, nomenclature, relationships, adolescence and at a stretch war, racism, betrayal, propaganda, tragedy, love and loss are all in there. What’s not to like? And if that leads someone to pick up another book on a similar theme and then another on less similar theme until they are in the habit of reading then surely it is to be applauded? Often the disinterest or even the fear of reading starts at school where the chosen literature has a profound effect on reading appetites – if reading feels like work then it is work. I would far rather give a class of 11 year olds a Harry Potter book – which for many might be the first real book they read, than say, Wuthering Heights which remains a staple on the curriculum? I don’t know too many 11 year olds that fully appreciate the destructive force of Heathcliffe’s love or the inherent elemental symbolism, in fact, I can see certain children being very confused by such adult subject matter and put off books for a good long while following such a baptism of fire. That doesn’t mean Wuthering Heights is not a far superior book, it just means, perhaps, it’s something to work up to.
A recent study suggested that a fifth of teenagers leaving school in the UK cannot read or write, making them virtually unemployable – I can only imagine how angry and scared and let down that must make them feel.
We should try to avoid making the same mistakes as the schools in that we should ask no more than books must be intellectually accessible to their own audience, it is not up to us to judge or dictate that audience.
There are those who see books as a resource to be consumed, those who see them as an almost religious artifact to be revered, and protected and those who have no interest. Both of the first two sets of people adore books, love literature and all it stands for and think a world without the written word would be a sorry, sorry place. That however is where the similarities end and the fine line of separation starts to widen into a gulf.
I have loved reading since I realised that decoding those squiggles meant I could get a story out of the thick cardboard pages of my nursery books. I saw being able to read and read well as a mystical, magical skill and I to certain extent, I still do. My mother filled every space of our home with shelf upon shelf of poetry and prose, fact and fiction, classical and modern; the greats, the good and the not so good and saw value in it all.
She taught me how to enjoy the smell of an old book; dusty, worn and full of knowledge and insight. Introduced me to the sensual beauty of a new book; the feel of fresh pages, smooth and crisp and eager to be read.
Each Christmas I would eagerly await my presents knowing there would be a stack of new books in there, all full of fresh and exciting adventures and things I didn’t yet know. I’d peel off the paper carefully, stroke the front cover, gently adjust the dust jacket and then open the first page to read the inscription. Right from the off I was a book worshipper.
My husband is a good man, but like all of us he has bad habits. His book reading habits though are enough to make me want to live in a different postcode. He is a consumer. He devours books at great speed, so focused on greedily pawing his way through the pages that he doesn’t give the book itself the appropriate respect. He will read while he’s eating, turning pages with jammy fingers or leave oily marks on the pages where he’s been eating crisps.
He will leave books in the bathroom until they get damp from the steam, their pages all wrinkled and withered like the veins on an old lady’s hands. Books never make it back to the shelf on finishing, they are unceremoniously stuffed everywhere; between sofa cushions, on windowsills, around the bed, in wardrobes, rolling around the passenger footwells of the car, abandoned like they were nothing more than an old till receipt.
The most heinous of all his crimes however, is that he will never use a bookmark. Pages are turned and folded at best, but more often than not they are held open by a half-full coffee cup, discarded plate or pages viciously forced akimbo and rammed face down on the nearest (not necessarily clean) surface. Spines scream as they are bent and creased and pages cry as they are coated in coffee dribble and I silently monitor the progress of my seizures wondering if I should be documenting this as an example of prolonged emotional torture for use in the murder trial.
If you are like my husband you will be sat there now shrugging, thinking: Seriously, what is her problem? It just shows that a book is read and loved if it shows a little wear and tear. To a certain extent I do agree with you, far better to see a book that has been read and enjoyed than one that has never been opened, but here is the crux of the matter: imagine you are me, with your shelves and shelves of cherished treasures, pristine in their dust jackets, spines creased just enough to show they’ve been opened, like literary laughter lines, the only marks on the pages where the tears elicited by the tales inside have fallen, the only creases in the pages are those made accidentally whilst in storage or transit. Now imagine that Oaf Boy up there; with his sticky fingers, coffee dribbles and spine-splitting tendencies is approaching said revered volumes, arms outstretched and full of intent. It’s like watching someone pick one of your children to mutilate. Of course, you can’t say anything other than a gentle “be careful with that” because after all you love Oaf Boy and you love that he wants to share in your love of these books, and you love that he is willing to let you share his favourites with you despite the fact you can rarely bring yourself to read them because they wail horrific tales of abuse, scaring on every page.
I’m sure he finds it just as hard watching me grimace as I do watching him and I’m sure that my neurosis seems as unreasonable to he and his ilk as their repeated torture does to me. So to all of you, whichever camp you belong to, heed my warning: pick carefully, and if you value your own sanity, stick with your own kind.