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Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Big One : A Hunger for Books

"We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers."




My thanks to The Guardian for publishing Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, of which the above is an extract.




When I was a small child we, mother, father, younger brother and myself, lived with my grandparents. When I was eight years old, or thereabouts, I got the chance to explore in the cupboard, rarely opened, situated behind my grandma's chair. There I discovered two identically bound books, survivors or fugitives they must have been, from a complete edition of the novels of Dickens. Each of the beautifully tooled volumes contained two novels. Between them: A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. "Hello, are you interested in those?" asked my Grandad, suddenly reappearing. "These are the books I've always wanted!" I lied. He gave them to me, of course. The print was small, the words beyond my ability to decipher. I had never heard of Dickens, nor any of his novels. I was bowled over by the look and feel of the books, by the gravitas that they seemed to exude.

In a small - infinitesimally small - way that memory connects me to the hunger for books and the ability to read them, which Lessing describes so movingly in her speech. The hunger of which she speaks is in Africa, and she contrasts it with our addiction to the inanities of the internet. The passage quoted above is one of the most chilling I have read on the subject. I am not sure why it struck home so profoundly unless it was because of the connection between my memory and the whole tenor of what she was saying. But there is another contrast that I find chilling: it holds in one hand the incident that I believe started me on the path to serious reading and in the other an image of the future, the future as it is being predicted by some, the hand-held text-reading machines supposedly waiting in the wings to take over the world - i.e. to replace books, even paperbacks, to do for literature what the IPod has done for music. I just bet they will beep! The designers will not be able to resist. The mantra is: if it can be done, it must be done. No such gismo could have achieved for me what those once-boxed volumes of Dickens accomplished.

Read the speech by clicking on the title to this post.

2 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

I have always been wary of beautifully bound books. I never read them. I have a few but I don't even look through them very often for fear that I might soil them in some way. There are books for sitting on shelves and there are books for reading. I much prefer the latter. I doubt I would ever stick a book under the leg of a table but I think one can go too far in the other direction as well. They are not sacred objects and, for the most part, they are easily replaced at little cost. That said I love 'em to bits.

As for the march of progress so called, I have to be philosophical about it. My wife bought me a Rocket Reader about eight years ago and I quite liked it. Having an illuminated screen was a definite plus on a dreich and dreary Glasgow morning huddled on the express bus. Not all of them have this facility though. At first I thought I'd be embarrassed by it but my fellow travellers took no interest in me for which I was grateful. And mine doesn't beep.

There is one good thing about electronic books: people will no longer judge them by their covers. I think though that you and I will never feel comfortable with e-books except in principle. We accept the internet despite its flaws as an efficient way of disseminating knowledge because it is an irresistible force.

My wife bought me an iPod-thingy. It's pretty, reasonably easy to use but I'd rather have had eighty quid to buy CDs with. I've downloaded one single off the internet and that was so I could send it to my daughter. I imagine I'll be as reticent about downloading books. It doesn’t matter that they're eco-friendly and all that crap, they belong to a bright and shiny future that is a little too bright and shiny for these old eyes.

spider said...

Yes, I have always said there are three kinds of books: coffee table books, bookshelf books and working books. Some of my poetry books bristle with page-markers (lottery tickets are good as they are thin enough not to strain the bindings) and the occasional annotated slip, but write in them - never! I get quite upset when a page becomes accidentally dog-eared.

My reference to being "beautifully bound" was made in the context of my response to the books then - I wouldn't think them beautifully bound now.

Dave King