Today is World Book Day and I’ve been thinking what exactly it is about books – physical, tactile books with pages and binding and weight – that excited me so much as a kid and still does. And also, why that matters and my mixed emotions over digital publishing.
I’ve always been a part-time Luddite, resisting new technology at the same time as coveting it, but by the time I inevitably give in and buy the gadget the rest of the world has moved on. As a writer in the modern world it is impossible not to adopt the use of some technology. Even Joe Hill, who apparently still enjoys the use of a typewriter, is a regular user of Twitter. Yet, I still haven’t bought into using an e-reader of some kind, despite their now huge popularity, even though I agree with the whole saving of space and trees aspect. Something about them still turns me off, and I know I am in the minority these days and given enough time, late night whisky and itchy mouse fingers I may purchase a Kindle and be all born-again digital Messiah. By which point the rest of the world will be consuming their books via Google Glass or direct brain uploads.
The thing is, when I walk into a bookshop, or a library, like the one in the photo above (Barter Books in Alnwick) it’s the very existence of the books that thrills me. Yes, the smell, the feel etc… but also the fact that they exist. When I was four years old I used to sleep in a sectioned-off area of my mum’s bedroom (because we used to rent out the only other bedroom in the flat) that had a wall on the left and a bookshelf on the right. I still have that same bookshelf (shelves bowing and blistering with multiple paint jobs), which towered over me as a child, all six shelves of it, laden with Enid Blyton and Dr Seuss and various books that have now escaped my memory. There was a safety to them. They represented, to me, a literal barrier to the nightmares that would try and invade my sleep.
Whether it’s due to the presence of that bookcase, I don’t know, but I find physical books to be such a valuable commodity. Anyone can pick them up and read them at any time, and given even minimal protection from the elements they should survive an extremely long time. There’s a reverence inherent in people’s behaviour towards large collections of books. Hushed words and soft footsteps, and I understand that. Who wouldn’t be reverent to the time, effort and imagination that has gone into producing those words, or even just the cover artwork design.
I’m not advocating that this is how everyone should behave, and I foresee a time in the very near future when attitudes are going to change irrevocably. The advent of digital publishing has turned books into more of a throwaway commodity. A non-corporeal thing that is gone at the touch of a button (the same could be said for books at the strike of a match, yet somehow one is seen as much more iconoclastic than the other). There are people growing up now who know nothing else but a digital world, and I’m curious to be able to see through their eyes and have a sense of how they perceive books. I don’t believe for a second that this applies to all people half my age or younger, but there has to be a difference of perception there. When I was sleeping in that bed betwixt wall and bookcase, the only technology in our house was perhaps a pocket calculator. TV, radio, fridge, telephones were still operating on technology that hadn’t progressed much since before WWII. I saw the advent of personal computers from their most basic incarnations (ZX spectrum etc…), but I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to grow up in a world where the internet and mobile phones, tablets, PCs, game consoles are an everyday occurrence and taken for granted.
One of my worries is that many things in today’s society are becoming so ephemeral, gadgets replaced by the next gadget within days of release, downloads zipping back and forth, our lives played out on screens, in social media, in virtual existence. Books need to survive as a concrete collection of our gathered wisdom, folly, insecurities, successes, loves, hates and philosophies. They need to stand as a safety barrier holding back the tide of invisible information.
This is fast becoming a sermon, and I don’t intend it to be so. It is a fairly unstructured thought salad, but I felt the need to blog about it (and yes I see the irony inherent after what I’ve just been saying). Perhaps it comes down to the effects of age and hankering after an age when life seemed simpler and less cluttered with ‘noise’. I’m sure many of us go through similar feelings as we get older, quietly terrified of the new world crashing down on us like a wave and everything we valued and treasured being swept away in the tide.