Saturday, 5 March 2016

The books as physical object

When I first got my Kindle, the most notable thing about it for me was how quickly I forgot whether I was reading something on paper or screen. It was surprisingly hard to judge the reading experience, because after a minute or two I would forget I was using a Kindle at all. It turns out that reading is all about the words! And I still have the same thing -- the other day I spent ages searching my house for a book I wanted to reread, only to realise it had been on my Kindle all along. (It had a particularly memorable cover design, and I was sure I'd owned the physical object.)

Now I find that I have a slight preference for books on paper, as long as they're not too large, and are well designed. I've never been that bothered about book smell -- old books mostly smell musty, or peppery, or of disintegrating leather bindings, and only occasionally have that sweet lignin--vanillin smell. (I own a set of Lucy Toulmin Smith's edition of John Leland's itineraries which smells amazing.) Books where layout or pictures are important are that bit easier on paper -- poetry for example, or guidebooks. Modern books should be paperbacks, and they should be unpretentious, and designed by the sort of designers who want you not to notice that they've been designed at all. The book as a physical object used to be my professional life, and I have read some of the most beautiful books in the world. (The Bury Psalter, for example, or the Trinity Gospels -- the thought of the Rustic Capitals in the latter still makes my heart feel tight.) I am hard to impress therefore -- I think that modern hardbacks in particular are nasty objects. And a book on my Kindle I can reread at a moment's notice anywhere in the world. But still a nice clean paperback in my bag feels like a small, everyday luxury. I think it's a bit like travel methods. If I need to get to a place I would rather go by train than by car or coach or plane; but usually the main point of travelling is the place you're going to.

But back when I first got my Kindle I thought about this a lot. I felt sad that a lot of my pleasure in browsing in bookshops had been removed. This was also at a time when I did not own permanent book shelves, when something like two-thirds or three-quarters of my library were long gone to Oxfam or the Cambridge market book stall, and the remnant were tightly sealed in cardboard boxes in my parents' garage, inside a metal shed which had been carefully closed up to keep out mice. The idea of the book as a physical object began to feel strangely metaphysical. I thought about someone I had heard of once who built an actual, physical memory palace. I yearned for the way that my library, even with bad books in it, had seemed like an outward reflection of the mind which had read them. I imagined a conceptual ideal of a library, with all the significant books of my life neatly arranged around the walls, each book placed among or against the books it spoke with. And inside it I would be in my proper setting, like a picture in a frame or a tiger in its jungle.

So that seems like the significance of physical books to me now -- not that they look nice, or that they smell nice, or that they survive being dropped in the bath, because they don't. It's their symbolism, the way they signify an entire mental experience, something that's changed you or spoken to you, perhaps in the smallest way. You could say (this might be going a bit far) an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. (Spritual is almost certainly not the right word.) And at the time when I was thinking about this I had abandoned the most liberal church in England to go to St Paul's cathedral instead for Evensong, and sit under the resplendently mosiaced dome while the choir chanted the canticles, something I was ashamed of even as I felt I needed to do it. For a long time I was troubled by my preference for quite high church services, given that they so often seemed to me to be about superficial things. I care nothing and less than nothing for chasubles and acolytes. I was brought up, and I am, a Protestant and we care about the words. We read them and we study them -- we take them in and dwell on them. We could never place beauty, or anything for that matter, higher than truth. We cannot bow down to things made by human hands (I still just physically can't) -- we would rather go into a lion's den or a burning furnace. We worship God as well in a forest or on a mountain or in someone's living room as in an old draughty building, perhaps better. But still there is something in the symbols too. The icons I own are not to be worshipped, but they are signs of something that has been spoken in my mind, and not just mine but those of many people widely scattered through time and space. The fourteenth-century building that my parents' church despairs of keeping maintained, and heated, and welcoming to normal people, is to my mind a sign of an ongoing love and attention to God, and to truth, for the whole life of a small and troubled Devon town. So I will keep my library of printed books, and add to it, and I will keep going to Evensong instead of Family Praise, and attending to Tallis and St Augustine rather than Graham Kendrick and Nicky Gumbel, because none of these things are the thing itself; and with that understood, they are free to take their real significance as signposts to other things that are true.

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