Is the book returning to its cradle? We call the products of the first five decades of print incunabula – a seventeenth-century re-use of the Latin for swaddling-clothes or cot, to signify their witnessing to the technology’s tentative first steps. In the established chronology, the so-called coming of the book was followed by the coming of age of the book. But is the book now reaching a second childhood? It is a question that was much on my mind as I met with a group of librarians for an Oxbridge Academics study week late last month.
I have been struck by a cluster of phenomena. Let me outline three vignettes. First, the librarians, mainly from American schools, described the use of computers, the internet and Kindles in their establishments, sometimes alongside, sometimes replacing books. They explained, in particular, how parents wanted their young children to learn from hard-copy books, with computers the preserve of the more mature child.
Second, I have been re-reading some of the coverage over the controversy in Britain of some local councils’ plans to close some public libraries. It is hardly a surprise that authors should line up to rail against those plans. One statement which succeeded in arousing its own hoo-ha was that of Alan Bennett, describing (more than once) the closure as an act of child abuse. An intentionally hyperbolic phrase surely designed to gain the publicity which it did. But what seems not to have been discussed is how Bennett has implicitly defined the public library not as a place for all but a sanctuary for the young. Children are by no means the only users of these libraries, whose existence is not intended to be (and should not be) simply an extension of school book-provision. Those of pensionable age often are borrowers too – Bennett could equally have talked about granny-bashing, but it is the association of reading and childhood that he chose to stress.
Third, Oxford is presently bidding to be World Book Capital in 2014. You would think it would be an obvious choice but what I want to highlight now is how the organisers of the bid present Oxford’s associations with books. The press release launching the bid emphasised:
For centuries, Oxfordshire’s authors have provided people of all ages around the world with timeless tales of imagination, passion and adventure, from Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ to Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy or Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.
Leave aside the mis-spelling of one author’s surname (Oxford’s bid for World Proof-reading Capital may be less than successful), ignore even that the three examples cited cover only about 150 years, rather than justifying the phrase ‘for centuries’ (reference to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy would have done that better). What is notable is that, in a city which produced the premier English Dictionary (and, for that matter, those for Greek and Latin), a city of poets like Gerald Manley Hopkins and Matthew Arnold, a city of scholars including – to mention only two among the living – Richard Dawkins and Diarmaid MacCulloch, it is the contribution of Oxford residents to the genre of fantasy literature and particularly children’s fantasies that is prized most.
Why, in all three instances, is there a particular association of books with childhood? We could read this positively, as part of the enduring legacy of nineteenth-century progressive liberals who dreamt of universal literacy: the expectation that everyone should be able to read one language with ease, plus the recognition that the learning process must begin at the youngest possible age, is so embedded in our culture that the artefact manifesting the written word is necessarily associated with the child. That association is understandable but has it become so engrained that we link the young with the book at the expense of fully appreciating its significance to other ages? To put it another way, we need books written for children as well as for adults, but what happens when the child becomes perceived – in more senses than one – as the primary reader? What does that then do to our perceptions of acceptable literacy, to the expected breadth of vocabulary and style of presentation that is considered the social norm?
I also wonder about the psychology behind those school parents who expect their young children to sit with books in front of them, before their learning process concentrates on the wonders of the screen. Is this a reflection of the parents’ own memories – or myths – of childhood, a time when books were part of the cocoon of safety and comfort enveloping one’s early years? And does it imply a sense that books are something one moves beyond – a relic to be retained as quaint, when life has found other ways to communicate?
But, then, how do those other ways to communicate relate to literacy? You are reading these words (a very few of you – and you are noble for it), but when you look at a screen, you are as much interacting with icons and with word-formations. We talk of different types of ability to read and prize functional literacy: but how functional is literacy going to be?
St Paul talked of when he thought as a child and spoke as a child – might we also now say, read as a child? When I became a man, I put away childish things. But are we in danger of storing away those very things that we take as definitive of our civilization by the very process of associating them with the under-age. Do we now see the full potential of the book through a glass, darkly?
Today The Observer announces the death of the book, once again. And if the printed word were come to a full-stop, its nemesis could prove to be English’s most popular vowel: the book, the argument goes, could fall victim to the ebook.
To be fair to the Sunday newspaper, it does not assume the end has come, and presents the eventuality as a hypothesis, on which it invites two columnists to discourse pro and contra. Peter Conrad acts out the role of cultured curmudgeon who prefers the touch of his old books rather than the lifelessness of a plug-in gadget. Novelist Naomi Alderman, on the other side, enthuses what the world could be like, if the potential of an on-line, ebook Middlemarch were to be realised:
imagine reading Middlemarch and, at a touch of a button, being able to look at images of the same paintings and sculptures Dorothea looks at in Rome or, for academics, being able to see links to all articles which reference the passage you’re reading.
If we are going to let our imagination gambol so spritely, we could wonder further and posit what the reaction of Casaubon (either the fictional Edward or the historical Isaac) might be. Reader, you may detect a tone of scepticism in my voice. I do doubt that what Ms Alderman would like to happen will become a reality in a matter of even years: it would require an investment for which few will envisage a suitable return. But, if it were all to happen, what would have been created is an exciting and different experience – not a replacement Middlemarch but a new one.
And this is the point, to which Conrad alludes, but which is not spelt out in full. As historians of the book can tell you, a book is not just a text: it matters whether the paper is Bible-thin or lavishly thick like a Folio (what a contrast to the Renaissance, when the thinness of parchment was a sign of quality). The typeface has an impact of how you read, as does the mise-en-page, the white space around the text, the presence or absence of footnotes, the elegance of the opening initial, the availability of page-numbers and running-headers. This is not to say that virtual versions of the text lacks the subtle but essential accoutrements of the book – though some, like touch and (for me, personally, so important) scent, can not be replicated, without, that is, the upgrade of a scratch-and-sniff card. Virtual volumes too could pay attention to the minutiae of typeface and presentation, but they rarely do, as yet.
As yet: this is a revolution which, however much it rushes at heady speed, is nowhere near its finishing line. It might want to congratulate itself on what it has achieved but that is so small besides what could be done, in the fulness of time. If only what is happening now was truly compared with previous information technology revolutions, then we might learn how really to harness the new possibilities. It is symptomatic of the unwittingly ahistorical approach that The Observer perpetrates a common solecism in its double-spread: it provides with its article ‘a history of the printed word’, implicitly suggesting that books in Europe did not exist before the mid-fifteenth century. But, of course, books were produced and could, in their own way, be published in their manuscript form. Gutenberg’s invention was not the invention of the book, but of another stage in its history – and one which has still not replaced the manuscript entirely. Nor was it an immediate success, or a definite boon to all readers: this was no revolution that shook the world in a matter of days or even years – centuries, more like. The dead-ends, the collapsed economic ventures, the defeats for scholarship: what failed will teach us as much as what, eventually and sometimes unexpectedly, succeeded. What is happening now is unprecedented but not unparallelled, and a sensitivity – even a humility – in the face of what’s gone before could help us see further. In the meantime, the old-fashioned – though, in the longue durée, new-fangled – printed text in hardcopy but softback probably has a few more years to go.