The other evening I found myself listening to a lecture by an enthusiastic young man explaining that since electronic text was the technical highlight of this young century, we must accept the consequences. Newspapers and magazines, he assured us, would be dead within a decade. And Printed Books would be next in line for the gallows.

I didn’t quite foam visibly at the mouth; but my stomach took to protesting the way stomachs do, a gastric expression of horror and protest. Every sympathy with electronic text, you understand; one must not be too antediluvian. Benjamin Dana once remarked that “there has been opposition to every innovation in the history of man, with the possible exception of the sword”. I’m not so sure about the sword (what did the makers of cudgels think about it?) but essentially Dana was right. Detergents happened; the atomic bomb happened and e-texts are all around us. But will a day ever come when we all have to abandon real books completely?

A sort of ecdysis one might call it ; true, that term really applies to moulting in those creatures that joyfully cast off their winter coats when the Spring arrives, but even the etymologists are now applying it to the art of striptease performers who (apparently equally joyfully) cast aside their garments. I therefore feel free to extend the term to a possible future scenario in which, moving with society, I shall joylessly cast aside my books and expose my naked mind to the Cloud. But when and how?

Just to sense the experience, I sat down today in front of my bedside bookshelf with space for just ten volumes, and tried some private ecdysis. Book Nr. 1 was a thoroughly bad novel given to me last year by my neighbour Watkin; since he is quite capable of asking for it back, I can hardly dispose of it. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 relate the adventures of Popeye the Sailor Man and his girlfriend Olive Oyl; bought at an airport to put me to sleep on a night flight and equally indispensable at home. Number 5 was a school prize, earned for doing something praiseworthy (but not apparently memorable) when I was fourteen; keep, if only to impress the grandchildren. Numbers 6 and 7 on economics so enraged me that I filled the margins with crass and cross comments in indelible ballpoint (how do you do that with an e-book?); worth keeping to remind myself in my dribbling dotage how sharp I once was. Number 8 – heavens, it’s a library book, due to be returned in 1968; the accumulated fine would ruin me; hide it, quick. Number 9, a ponderous volume, came from an old dame, long departed, who had pressed flowers in it (now try that with an e-book); must keep. Number 10 was a gift from my best beloved, who is even now eying me and wondering what I am up to. Overall not a promising result: bibliographic ecdysis, when the time comes, is going to be real tough.

Pottering now around my other bookcases, I alight every three inches on things that I shall want to keep in solid form. Take The World’s Great Books in Outline that John Hammerton (never afraid of putting a quart into a pint pot) produced ninety years ago for people who, like myself, decided that there were many books that one would never get round to reading, but with which one needed to have some passing acquaintance. Having told myself in my youth that I was not going to waste my time reading a book with a dry-as-dust title like The Mill on the Floss I was later grateful to Hammerton for reducing it to a mere four pages that I could digest over a cup of coffee. Even old John must however have struggled mightily with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; somehow he got it down to thirty pages, which suits me fine for a Sunday afternoon. Still, one wonders what Gibbon himself would have said if he found his masterpiece further reduced, ninety years on, to flimsy electronic nothingness on an i-screen.

That’s perhaps the point; I want something solid that I can hold and feel, books that weigh me down when I climb with them onto the bus home, but confirm thereby that I have acquired something substantial. And then the smell: wander around any antiquarian bookshop and you realize how real books, like decent cheese, emit a bouquet of their own that gets increasingly seductive with age. Yes, there is a factory up in Lancashire that produces aerosol scents for all occasions – they even have one that makes plastic smell like tanned leather – but could you imagine spraying your I-book with antiquarian odour Nr. 52 to create atmosphere before you start reading? In any case, you would probably just end up clouding the screen or melting the integrated circuits.

No, I may yet experience a time when publishers become mere dealers in gigabytes and most real books are consigned to museums (while the rest are reprocessed into corrugated cardboard). But then there will then be people, myself among them, who, after surviving on electronic flickertexts all the week, will escape on Saturdays to secret cellars where they have set up Real Book Preservation Societies to cherish what used to be. There will be hundreds of -bound volumes there, but yellowing Penguins as well, and a Caxton press in the corner where we can fiddle with lead type and ink and handmade paper to our hearts’ content. And so it will remain until the gods send down shafts of lightning that cause every e-book on earth to gassify. Then the world will perforce come to its senses, and people will scurry to us for succour, knowing that it is time for real books to come into their own again.


Photo credit: ptygmatics

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