On Books: Some Thoughts and a Poem

The last few years has seen the growth of the eBook.  The popularity of dedicated electronic readers such as the Kindle, not to mention the advancement and ubiquity of other portable technologies such as the once humble mobile telephone, has meant that there is an abundance of literary material available almost instantaneously at the touch of a (virtual) button.  The same technologies give advancement to these rash (in my view) notions of a ‘paperless office’.  Personally, I can’t think of anything worse.  Although I am technologically minded, and embrace many of the technologies that come along, the need for paper cannot be usurped.  I love paper.  When I write I use a combination of on-screen editing and paper, drafting ideas on paper, transferring and developing them on-screen, printing this and working on the paper copy, and transferring those edits to the computer – and so it might continue.  Paper is where the ideas happen and things take shape.  The screen is a tool on which I can refine and move things around.  And once I have completed the thing, I often print a copy and, depending upon the nature of the work, retain both the paper drafts and the final copy in a file.  At a time when paper is sourced responsibly and sustainably and draws upon recycled material, I think that there should be no qualms about using paper – so why the need for the paperless office?

SThe answer undoubtedly lies in the fact that paper must be stored and takes up space.  And the same is true of books.  I am sure that many of my books (a section of which is picture to the right) would fit on a small, slim thing about the size of a slim paperback, but that is not the point.  What, in actuality, is the book?  Is it, like music, an intangible thing, of which the printed page is merely a record of a work that only exists when that printed record is translated to sound?  (A question akin to that thorny issue of whether, when a tree falls in a wood and nobody is there to hear it, does it in fact make a noise?)  Or is it something more than that?  Is the typography the book?  Or its binding?  For me it is all of these.  The bookish experience is one that begins with the physicality of the book, which gives some sort of embodiment to the less tangible fuel of the imagination which is contained within.  While the electronic book may contain the words, and even the typography, in its ability to contain all and sundry within its plastic casing, you do not get the unique individualism of the physical book.  Something is lost.

This is not to say that I don’t use eBooks.  When I go in search of books for my research I use the wonderful facility that is http://www.archive.org, on which many books are available to view or download as PDFs; but this is merely a matter of convenience and a first foray into that book.  If it contains what I hope, and I wish to read it, then I will visit the wonderful resource that is http://www.abebooks.co.uk and seek out a physical copy.  And only then, once it is in my hands, do I feel that I can get to know a book.  The internet and electronic books are a marvellous tool, but they are merely tools.  When using reference works I do find that it is often faster for me to go to my shelves and pluck off a book than it is to search and filter and work out what google might present you with and then read it; and when you have several reference texts on the go, having three or four books in front of you is much easier.

One important point to make is that, with the increase in digital facilities, the need for archives and proper libraries (filled with books and not computers, as seems increasingly to be the case) is ever more important.  One can view archives and books on the internet or from images otherwise digitally supplied, but technology is not infallible.  As the physical stock of local libraries has very noticeably decreased, and the use of eBooks and downloaded texts has increased, one feels that the physical book is in danger.  The tragedy of this eventuality, I feel, cannot be understated.

Just in case anyone is interested, I am appending below a thing I wrote a couple of years ago on the subject:


It is nothing to see:
A lifeless fall of leaves
furled in dark
unremarkable silence.

As a name to a man’s soul,
so few words betray
what lies entomed within –
but how those boards
so faded and frayed did thrill!

I reach out and gently
lift the lid of this inward eye;
the outer world dulls and dims
as those drear wings spread
in nervous joy of first flight.

Worlds and ideas awake,
sparkling like fire in the senses,
fuelled by coal etched words
burned finely into the page;
refined embers of the maker’s first notion,
untangled from the wood of thoughts,
set down and bound as precious
growth rings of civilisation.

In fragile perpetuity they endure,
speaking soundlessly across generations,
igniting infinite original meanings
in each enquirer’s mind.

Burgeoning volumes thicken
the woods that grow
to seeming endless forest
as dreams of many compete
to stand tall, nurtured with pain
or self-seeding with ease;
and our autumn’s long
high summer begins
its untimely end:
fresh foliage suppressed,
the richly scented leaves
are swept away to be recalled
only in photographic memory, increasing
intangibility, diminishing experience,
which returns to the rare
artisan’s evergreen preserve.

Words remain, and ever shall
while man breathes and reasons;
but hold them fast in unreliant
silence, burnt into earth’s
offerings as lasting memorial;
near-eternal conveyers of mystery,
of wisdom . . . and of delight.

© Philip Lancaster, Jan-May 2011

[Please respect my copyright in this poem, and the other things posted on this blog.]


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