Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Books, Museums, and Mausoleums

Does anyone else have something of a grudge against the idea of e-books? The idea popped up a few days ago, when someone suggested that one day books will be completely redundant and the world will belong to what can pop up on a tiny Ipod/Blackberry screen.
They were quite startled when I let out a wail of dismay at the idea. They thought it was an excellent idea. And it is, in theory - you can access a world of words at your fingertips in a matter of seconds.
But...what of the book fetishists?
A book fetishist, by the way, is not someone who will just dip into a book 'occasionally', when you have the time. It's not even the more earnest type of student who have to own books simply to write their own miniscule, very precise notes for dissertations. It's the sort of borderline obsessive (like myself) who simply HAS to own books for the sake of it. The physical, sensual pleasure of owning a book - the fresh, clean smell of newly printed pages, the way the print smudges in some of the cheap Penguin classics when you run a finger down them, the luxury editions with coloured pates in glossy paper, the lovely embossed feel of a cover with slippery acrylic words - the fancy, Christmas books with raised velvet lettering or soft morrocan leather covers...
Ah. Paradise.
Where's all this with an e-book? Besides, there is something very private about the act of reading a book. It's between you and the pages, no-one else. Computers are there for people to glance over your shoulder and make disparaging comments. Ipods are... well, the idea of trying to read Ivanhoe or some of my favourite reads on a tiny little mp3 player screen - ugh!
Books must live - or else end up like the books in the John Rylands Library.
It's one of the saddest mausoleums I ever saw. It's exclusive to Manchester, and there are certainly some rare manuscripts there. There's a giftshop, too - and a decent cafe if anyone ever cares to go. It's also hailed as 'gorgeous, Gothic, romantic'...
Well. It is, but it's Victorian Gothic, in the slightly tasteless, 'look, let's invent some fake history!' style. Outside it could be a set from Harry Potter. Manchester had an odd complex about itself way back in the 1800s - slightly defensive, in a very North And South way. The rich industrialist whose money built the John Rylands Library was a staunch Protestant, so his widow hires an enthusiastic Ruskin-influenced architect and...
Well, that's where it goes amusingly wrong. The inside feels like a church. It looks like a church, too. There are lots of statues staring piously down from all over the place. But - John Calvin? John Knox?
What went wrong there?
And it's decorated in the sort of style Calvin and Knox burnt people at the stake for. They're Puritan marble statues in 'High-Church Gothic' Disneyland.
Really, you have to laugh. But not for the poor books. No-one's read them in decades because of the special permits you need and the forms - so they sit imprisoned in bookcases with wire mesh like a dank dungeon and quietly moulder away. It's a tomb for dead words that scarce three people read in a year.
For book fetishists like myself, this is horribly depressing.

1 comment:

Mercury Gray said...

Someone else has a problem with reading books online? Thank God, I thought I was the only one. I can't stand reading extended texts on my computer -- Beyond a few pages, I'm done. Give me paper copy any day of the week. I have that problem with newspapers, too. There's something inordinately pleasing and permanent about holding the physical newsprint in your hands and getting ink on your fingers.

I also agree with what you say about reading being a solitary pursuit that should remain uninterrupted by the connectivity of the internet -- there's an article called "The Grasshopper on the Windowsill" that explores the same thing. It's by a man named Sven Birkerts, if you want to read it. He postulates that eventually, with the internet putting so much information at our fingertips we'll eventually become some sort of hive mind, where everyone knows what everyone else knows. VERY scary thought.