bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Parliament and the Vellum Debate – the final word (for now)

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 23 April, 2016

On Wednesday, the House of Commons finally found an hour and half to debate whether to abandon the practice of printing the official copy of statutes on ‘vellum’. At the end of the ninety minutes, 155 MPs – just under a quarter of the House – voted on the issue with a large majority in favour of rejecting the move to change to printing on ‘archival paper’. As with my previous discussions on this issue, I do not want to dwell on whether this is the right resolution as much as on the reasoning given on both sides of the argument.

It is often said – most often by MPs, but also by others among Westminster’s village-people – that the level of informed debate held in the Commons is impressive. If that is so, then the Members of Parliament were having a collective bad day on Wednesday. Most of the interventions revealed ignorance, revelled in irrelevance and resorted to hyperbole. The item at the heart of the debate – ‘vellum’ – was not well understood by many who considered their opinion should be heard. As I have explained before, the terminology has an innate ambivalence and its history is the subject of debate. A small example of this is my own mention in an earlier post of uterine vellum, a particularly smooth surface because (it is said) it is made from the skin of an abortive or neo-natal calf. My friend, Mary Garrison at the University of York, dropped me a line to point out that recent research demonstrates that there is no reason to assume that what was called, in the Middle Ages, ‘abortive vellum’ did actually come from such young animals: it may well instead be a matter of how the skin was prepared. There is, in other words, some doubts over details in scholarly circles, but there is nothing like the confusion MPs showed. Vellum is not, as Sir Paul Beresford would have it, a ‘very similar material to parchment’ – vellum simply is parchment. The term, as I have explained before, can have special connotations and, indeed, at Parliament’s parchmenters, William Cowley, it is used particularly to signify a writing surface made of calf-skin (I thank Patricia Lovett, the leading calligrapher who has campaigned hard on this issue, for confirming this). Vellum – etymologically connected to veal – is the calf-skin sub-set of parchment. This eluded some of those who rose to speak who talked of laws being printed on goatskin. This was a claim made in the 1999 debate on the issue, and recently repeated on television by young Jacob Rees-Mogg, but is no more than an error: goats can be used for the making of parchment, as can sheep, and both are utilised at William Cowley’s but not for the highest-grade material that is sold to Parliament.

The ignorance about what they were discussing was not confined to one material. The putative replacement is ‘archival paper’ which, according to Paul Beresford, has been used by Parliament since 1510. This conjures up an image of a clerk to Henry VIII visiting a paper-maker and insisting ‘I don’t want any of your run-of-the-mill stuff…’ – except, of course, there was no such distinction between types of paper in the sixteenth century and, anyway, in 1510 a royal clerk could not have simply have walked across London to find a paper-mill: there was none in England at this point or until the middle of the reign of Elizabeth. We might wonder how many of the speakers relish the idea that those early paper records were all written on imports from our continental neighbours.

This is not to say that all historic paper is as liable to destruction as some of the speakers claimed. Chris Skidmore, himself trained as an historian (did I not teach you one term, Chris?) and author of history books, described his visits to the National Archives at Kew. He was right to say that many of the early modern records on paper are fragile and unavailable to touch – but he surely also knows that there are others of the same date which have survived and show no sign of disintegrating in the next few years. The quality of paper varied and what is perhaps surprising is that some of the more ephemeral records written on thin paper not intended to last are still with us. It is not the case, as was claimed in the debate, that paper cannot last 500 years – just as we can have no certain evidence that, as James Gray moving the motion to retain vellum claimed, parchment will last 5,000 years. We have no examples of that age and, indeed, the city of Pergamon, most likely did not exist and certainly had not invented parchment (the city’s name is the origin of our term) in 3,000 BC.

Exaggerated claims, however, were not the preserve of those wanting to continue the use of vellum. On the other side, the amounts of money to be saved do not bear scrutiny. In an impassioned speech condemning the motion as a ‘vanity project’, Paul Flynn claimed £100,000 a year could be saved by moving to paper copies. This is more than double the figure of the cost of the vellum in the year of highest expenditure, and the amount paid to William Cowley, by their reckoning, is usually closer to £20,000. Like so many predicted government savings, this is likely to be one which does not materialise and then requires the costs of an investigation to find out why it did not.

Other speeches combined mistakes with misdirection. Michael Ellis noted that ‘Torah scrolls are printed on vellum’, except that the Jewish tradition requires the handwriting of the Torah (not printing) and, as the MP himself later noted, the ‘vellum’ was not produced by England’s one commercial supplier. What would be valid is the larger point that parchment still has uses beyond the copies of record of statutes – but whether that is a point which would commend itself to those MPs in favour of continuity is doubtful.

The reason for doubt is the implication of the central argument used for continuing the practice: a resort to tradition. Ronnie Cowan spoke eloquently against this mantra, hinging his contribution on a quotation from Woody Allen: tradition is the illusion of permanence. For some in the debate, it certainly seemed that the construction of an illusion was the value of vellum. Several speakers referred to Magna Carta, presumably because it continues to be so much in the public imagination following the 2015 celebrations; the argument usually ran that it would not have survived if it had been written on paper – overlooking the copying and re-copying which has been part of its success. On the other side, the importance of the Great Charter was taken to stand in opposition to the tawdry mundanity of much latter-day legislation. In riposte, the wittiest intervention, by David Warburton, contrasted the importance of Domesday Book with the ‘equally wondrous’ Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2016 but by mentioning them in the same breath intended to emphasise a sense of connexion – they are all part of the legal fabric of our nation and so all deserve to partake in a tradition of respect. In this logic, one would expect the processes of respect to be shared by all elements of that fabric but also confined only to them. Might we hear next of an attempt to make the use of vellum exclusive to those products of the genius of our MPs’ minds, the statutes of the realm?

I have said before that the argument that parchment should be used for printing records because it evokes tradition and stability suggests something worrying about how we construct our state, with recourse to mystique rather than reasoning. The cause of law on ‘vellum’ seeks for the physical material itself to express something of the ineffable spirit of our unwritten constitution. Is there no better argument? There surely is, but it was not expressed on the floor of the Commons. If, though, Parliament, for its own ill-informed and illogical reasons, wishes to provide a small subsidy to keep alive Britain’s one parchment-maker, then that does some good. The Commons may have had the wrong reasons but it reached the right decision – this time.

Will this be the end? In the normal run of things, we might expect to be saved from another debate for at least a decade. But, then, these are not normal times. Imagine (if you dare) this scenario: the EU referendum is won by those who want Britain to leave the Union. As a result, that other Union, between England and Scotland (which, by all accounts is solidly in favour of remaining in the EU) collapses, since it would be tyrannous for one partner to insist the other be bound to its own descent into squalid isolation. In that context, the newly English Parliament, faced with not just a political but also an economic crisis of its own making, would need to consider all savings possible. In that context, what would the fate of ‘vellum’ be?

Parliament and the Vellum Debate, part II

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 7 March, 2016

To continue from yesterday’s post, where I discussed the tensions in the debate over whether British statutes should continue to be printed on vellum for the copies of record.

5. In the internet we trust?

The transformation of the world wrought by the invasion of the internet is, of course, the most significant change since the issue of parchment versus paper was last discussed on the floor of the House. Some, indeed, have pointed out that both sides in the debate seem antiquated: real change, it could be argued, would come with using the internet as the primary form of record. There would be worries about interoperability, that is the future availability of the texts as technology continues to revolutionise itself. This, though, is not the fundamental problem: ‘real change’ would be change to the virtual; the word of the law would be an apparition on screen, a vision – or a mirage. Is there yet enough trust in the gods of the internet who can conjure up words before us to let those things we considered most precious out of our grasp, to become intangible? It is improbable that such a future would commend itself to the honourable members of the Commons. Whatever presence a statute has on-line, it is likely Parliament will want to have the reassurance of a physical copy. This appears to be the consensus which hides behind the division of opinion – and not only that: there is a common acceptance among the law-makers that the form the copy of record takes should be of a quality to reflect the respect due to the law. This is, it should be stressed, not the only position that could be taken. In fact, a different approach was proposed by the Assistant Clerk to the House of Commons in 1837, when he noted that:

…the durability of the [copy of record] itself is of less consequence, when the permanent preservation of evidence of its contents is sufficiently secured by the multiplication of copies by printing, in case of the destruction of the original…

In other words, replication itself could stand as the guarantee of longevity. Admittedly, this reveals an ignorance of the frequency with which a printed work can disappear completely but what is more significant is that, in the nineteenth century, there was a trust in technology which could envisage an alternative to reliance on the specific copies of record. Of course, his argument was rejected: the insistence on durability and appropriate quality won then and will win now, whatever the outcome. It is not the only logical solution available but that it is seen as logical should give us pause to reflect.

6. More than skin deep

There is a paradox at the heart of the issue: the on-line would be consider insufficient because it is intangible but, equally, for the vast majority of the population, the physical copies of record are not within their reach. For each statute, there are two copies, one held in the Parliamentary Archives, and the second sent the National Archives at Kew. Any citizen can travel to Kew to check that record – but very few would bother. Most of us prefer, instead, to have confidence in the process and not to test it. We might consider ourselves cynical of those in power and about the workings of the state but, at some level, we look to it for reassurance. That reassurance lies not just in the fact that there are established methods of doing things – rituals of mundane bureaucracy – but also in a belief that there has been and will be continuity, that they have lasted and will be durable.

The rhetoric of durability, that is to say, is not simply or primarily a practical consideration: it speaks to the fundamental expectation that government provides stability. The party in power may change, policy and legislation itself may be overturned or revised but beneath that – we are being reassured – lies a more basic constancy. In creating that aura, however mendacious it might be, the choice of material on which to preserve the law of the land is part of the rhetoric, an element of the arcana of the state. In this context, parchment has a special advantage: it exudes archaicity and rarity. Perhaps even more than that, the idea of writing on the skin of animal hints at something visceral or elemental. The argument might go: while medieval kings hunted beasts in the royal forests, the rights of their subjects were written in charters on parchment. That ‘vellum’ – and now we may see the full import of the preference for that term – symbolises tradition certainly overlooks the greater changes that have occurred in the recording of legislation, but its continuing use creates or fabricates a sense of tradition.

This is heightened by the very fact that parchment is now rare: the message being given is that Parliament is so committed to showing respect to the law that they will seek out materials of the highest quality, however difficult they are to come by. That there is only one company in Britain commercially producing parchment is very much to the advantage of this rhetoric. If there continued to be as lively an industry as there was in the nineteenth century, this would have less traction. Parliament, then, should thank William Cowley of Newport Pagnell for being the sole survivor of that industry: in the years in which Parliament has relied on them for the supply of ‘vellum’, the apparatus of the state has, I would suggest, gained more in aura or charismatic capital than the company in financial return. For that reason alone – whatever doubts or suspicions we might have as citizens about the aura created – Parliament surely owes a debt to William Cowley; £40k a year sounds like a rather small subsidy to keep alive the only representative of an industry. If, though, that still seems excessive and the honourable members want to cut costs further, they might think of a more radical solution and one which would allow them to spend more time in their constituencies: pass fewer laws.

Parliament and the Vellum Debate, part I

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 6 March, 2016

Given the momentous and quick-moving issues at stake in politics this year, a question of stationery might hardly register. But when, this coming Thursday (10th March 2016), the House of Commons debates the future format of the copies of record of parliamentary statutes, there is something more going on than a simple choice between parchment and paper. Here is a palaeographer’s guide to the issue, brought to you in two instalments.

1. Some background

At the very middle of the nineteenth century, in 1849, two significant innovations were made concerning the official record of legislation. Up to that point, the ‘copy of record’ of each statute was written by a scribe on a parchment roll, the length of which varied – some rolls were over 400m long. The decision was made to dispense with tradition: in future, ‘with the view to preventing the chances of error’ the record would be printed, and the format would be a booklet, not a scroll. The one element that did not change was the material on which it was to be produced – it remained parchment or, as the parliamentary record constantly terms it, vellum.

The question of whether there should also be a change in material was (as the Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library, Elise Uberoi, has shown) considered in these discussions but, it seems, rejected at the last stage. In that sense, what is being discussed now could be seen as a piece of unfinished business. It is also, though, very much interrupted business: it was over a century later, in the later 1950s, that the decision was to taken to print Private Acts on paper; in 1957, a wider move for all legislation was rejected. There was further discussion in the mid-1980s, and, in 1999, the House of Lords proposed reform but this was also rejected in the Commons after a debate. The issue was revisited last year, and the process became byzantine: a Committee report recommended the change but there was no vote in the Commons; it was then announced a month ago that the decision had been made to end printing on parchment on 1st April. The Cabinet Office, however, has intervened to offer to cover the costs of continuing the practice, and the debate now set for Thursday is intended to provide a resolution to the matter.

2. Vellum versus Parchment

We should clarify terms. Parliament’s preferred term, ‘vellum’, and ‘parchment’ are often used interchangeably to describe the skin or membrane of an animal which has been prepared in such a way that it can be a writing surface. Strictly speaking, ‘vellum’, which is related to ‘veal’ should signify parchment from the skin of a calf, but many of the leaves used for statutes have been goat-skin. There is, though, another connotation to ‘vellum’: as the best quality parchment is considered to be that of ‘uterine calf’ (that is – and the squeamish should turn away now – from stillborn or neo-natal cows, where the hair has not had opportunity to grow and so the skin particularly smooth), the word can also imply the highest-grade of animal skin. It would seem that it is with those overtones that the term was used in the nineteenth-century discussions – a contrast is, at times, drawn between ‘vellum’ and ‘parchment’. Though, in the present debate it goes unstated, something of that sense of quality lingers in the continuing insistence on the less common and so more evocative term.

3. Modernisation versus Tradition

Reporting on the previous Commons debate in 1999, the BBC commented ‘this is one battle the modernisers have lost’. The idea that a change would be modernisation is curious and not just because a shift to a technology first introduced into Europe in the thirteenth century is hardly cutting-edge. Behind talk of ‘modernisation’ usually hides an implication of improvement but even the most rabid supporters of paper would not claim it was superior in durability or feel to parchment. Indeed, for most of its history, paper has been the poor cousin of writing surfaces. When the printing press was invented in the mid-fifteenth century, it proved a more conducive surface than supple parchment on which to stamp metal type, but even with that advantage, it was considered of lower quality: Johann Gutenberg himself had the Bible he printed produced on paper but with de-luxe copies on parchment. The practice was to continue in the following centuries. One late example of it which fascinates me is the twentieth-century tradition of churches in England commissioning manuscript books listing those from the parish who fell in war: out of respect for the dead, these are not only calligraphic masterpieces, they are most often on what many would call vellum.

On the other side of the debate, there is a similarly questionable assumption underlying some of the statements. The inclination to cite tradition as a reason might warm the cockles of conservative hearts. While it is never a sufficient rational argument for the status quo, in this case it is especially suspect. It can hardly be claimed that the printing statutes on vellum is itself a habit that has endured centuries, considering it began in 1849. A variant on ‘it has always been done like this’ could be ‘it is everywhere done like this’ but that would be demonstrably untrue. While the practice of printing on parchment was used in the United States for the copy of a Congressional bill sent to the President for signing, since 1947, the requirement has been only that the copy should be ‘printed on parchment or paper of suitable quality’. The question, in Britain, is whether paper can constitute ‘suitable quality’ – and whether the quality of parchment comes at too high a cost.

4. Price versus durability

The discussions in 1999 and in 2015-16 have been stimulated by a desire to save money. The claim has been made that using parchment is unjustifiably expensive, both because it is rare and costly product and because it requires a ‘highly specialised form of printing’. It is certainly the case that, in Britain, there is a monopoly on the industrial production of parchment: the one company in business is William Cowley of Newport Pagnell (for whom supplying Parliament plays a major role in keeping them in trade). The second claim, though, is surprising: certainly, as has been mentioned, printing traditionally has found parchment a less usable surface than paper but with the developments in technology to the extent that 3D printing would allow you to build your own tank or replica art masterpiece, it is implausible that fairly cheap methods of printing on parchment are unavailable. Overall, the claim has been made that moving from parchment to paper would save £80k but opponents of the change, led by the energetic calligrapher, Patricia Lovett, have estimated that the real difference is £37k per annum.

Against these financial calculations is set the issue of ‘quality’ or, more specifically, durability. A perennial problem for the reputation of paper has been that the suspicion that it will not survive in perpetuity. In the thirteenth century, the Emperor Frederick II banned the use of paper for recording his laws precisely because pages made only a few decades earlier were already disintegrating. It seems that the durability of the material was improved later in the same century in the Italian town of Fabriano which became the first major centre of the paper industry. In recent discussions, one argument has been that the ‘archival paper’ proposed to replace parchment is designed so that it should be able to last five hundred years. It was also pointed out, in the 1999 debate, that if a fire were to occur both parchment and paper would perish. This is only partly true, as anyone knows who has worked with manuscripts once owned by the seventeenth-century antiquary Sir Robert Cotton which were then subject to a fire in 1731. Some were destroyed completely but others survived in a fragmentary state, the parchment translucent, contorted and brittle but often still legible. The reality is that paper is quicker to burn, just as it is more susceptible to water damage. What is undeniable is that, while parchment is more durable, that is not in itself a guarantee that it will withstand all the possible disasters that can befall a physical object. If you want endurance, perhaps we should be looking beyond the physical.

Click here to read Part II.

Virtual manuscripts and the real world (part I)

Posted in Future of Books, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 8 July, 2013

I find it hard enough at times to keep up with the Times Literary Supplement; I usually manage to finish reading the copy from the week before last, only to watch the next issue drop onto the doormat. Having been out of town in the heat of Florence, teaching the arcana of codicology to a set of bright graduate students, I am now woefully out-of-date. And so, it was only thanks to Kenneth Pennington’s recent letter that I was alerted to the provocative comment piece by Tony Edwards on the digitization of manuscripts. I say provocative since it patently provoked Prof. Pennington: he opens his correspondence by accusing Prof. Edwards of holding opinions ‘more suited to the age of M. R. James than to scholarship in the twenty-first century’. Some might take that as a compliment; it was certainly not intended as one. If I am a few weeks’ out-of-date, Edwards is accused of being much more so, and being nothing less than a technophobe.

Comparison of the letter and the article that caused it might suggest that there has been some unfortunate misunderstanding. Edwards’ purpose in writing was not to reject outright digitizations but to draw attention to what he sees as two negative consequences of such projects: a limiting of access to the manuscripts themselves and a lack of funding for conservation or training to assist making the books available safely to readers. Admittedly, his prose does not shy away from the mischievous, as when he asks ‘are digital surrogates not really just a new, more expensive form of microfilm?’. He might have predicted his comments could rile some or even specific individuals. It is certainly the case that ‘Edwards v. Pennington’ is not now in its first round. Three years ago, another article by the same distinguished English scholar in the same publication inspired a riposte from the same distinguished historian of medieval law. When Edwards drew up a balance-sheet of the pros and cons of digitizations, he singled out for honourable mention the Parker on the Web project which has placed high-quality images of the all the holdings of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on-line (the launch of which I celebrated in a post). Pennington felt the need to respond: ‘in spite of Edwards’s cautious comments, there are almost no downsides to putting manuscripts and rare books on the internet’, he commented, pointing out rightly how many important projects are in progress in Germany; he then turned a rather less forgiving eye to the Parker project – ‘a  sulphurous vision into the lowest regions of the Inferno’ he termed it – complaining about the subscription cost, in contrast to the free availability of German digitization, and adding, for good measure, that its ‘scholarly standards are abysmally low’ since it has put on-line the standard catalogue of the Corpus manuscripts, by M. R. James.

MRJ again. Pennington’s invocations of the ghost of the Provost of Eton and King’s provide a curious footnote in the history of his posthumous reputation. No one now would suggest that his manuscript descriptions are exemplary and the intention of at least one Cambridge college to replace his catalogue is to be welcomed. But Pennington’s implicit suggestion that the Parker project should not have mounted his records of the manuscripts on the web is surely not serious – even when his work is superseded, scholars will need to continue to check what he had to say, especially as he saw the books before the post-War campaign of re-binding (and cropping) which defines their present state. What Pennington presumably wanted was for the Parker Library and their backers, the Mellon Foundation, to have commissioned a new catalogue, produced alongside or as part of the digitization programme. He is certainly not alone in that wish, but it is a counsel of perfection. It would have been expensive – though it might be said with the overall price-tag of Parker on the Web (around $6 million), it could have been done for an extra 1% or, at most, 2% of that cost. It would have been time-consuming, potentially impossible to do well within the relatively tight time-span of the digitization, and it would have complicated an already grand project. None of these should stop us wishing it had happened, but they are practical considerations that surely weighed on the minds of the project managers when developing their ‘mission’.

Even if a new catalogue was not possible (or especially if), the other concern – the cost of subscription to the project – remains. The rates are very high and contrast, say, with the developing policy of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, where a daily or weekly subscription is possible. Pennington chooses a different comparison, and contrasts the Corpus Cambridge approach to that of Munich, where what is digitized is freely available, a policy made possible by government support. Perhaps, in Germany, there is more public backing for mounting images of medieval books than there is, say, for bailing out Greece – and this, in fact, is at the nub of the debate. Both Pennington and Edwards would recognise that there are finite funds for which the decisions of how they should be spent are decided in the public arena. Edwards’ approach is to question whether large-scale digitization campaigns should be the priority. It is this attitude that disturbs Pennington; as he puts it in his most recent letter:

 I write this letter because views like Edwards’s are dangerous for the future of scholarship and for extraordinarily important projects like the one in Munich. Almost all the major libraries are funded by government officials who have little or no understanding of these issues. As with climate change, politicians will embrace a contrarian who will help them to slash esoteric projects like the digitization of rare manuscripts and books. For a medievalist the issue is far from trivial.

I will admit that the last sentence in that quotation worries me. A medievalist may also be an engaged citizen, and a citizen anywhere in Europe might – to continue the contrast made a moment ago – consider saving the Euro to be more important than making more manuscripts available on-line in the near future. But that is not the point Edwards was making: his was not a suggestion that the funding for libraries should be reduced but that, within the available resources, careful choices should be made. ‘Digitization’, he would suggest, might be a fashionable concept, but is it really the top desideratum? It might be inferred that Pennington’s response would be that if the project is not fashionable, it is likely to receive less funding – but that second-guesses policy-making in a very passive manner. Libraries and academics (especially those who write in publications as much part of the public sphere as TLS) can do their part in shaping those fashions or, at the very least, help nudge them in the direction of the most propitious outcome.

The debate, in other words, is not whether to digitize or not, but, instead, one about the ideal pace of on-line developments and their place in the wider contexts of library priorities and developing scholarly practices. We are inclined to think that the virtual world is bound to develop exponentially, on an increasingly vertical upward curve. That would be a giddy, even nausea-inducing ride but there is no guarantee or requirement that the graph will be drawn thus. There is time to pause and think about how best to harness the resources that are developing – and, on that, I believe I have a few helpful suggestions which will form the core of my next post.

The Infantilization of the Book?

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 11 August, 2011

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?

‘The Book is Dead’ – again

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 27 July, 2008

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.