I visited, at Leeds University, a forum hosted by Melvyn Bragg about the future of books, meaning objects laboriously made out of ink and paper and not converted into the more convenient form of electronic documents which won’t gather dust, harbour mites or involve hard choices when it comes to slinging them out to charity shops.
The panel was very high-powered, involving not only Bragg, whose hair is slightly bigger in real life than on the telly and who shares with David Attenborough the distinction of being wholly admirable without making you sick, but also the top man at Waterstones booksellers, a chief librarian at Leeds University and professors of literature and the written word.
But all that firepower didn’t tell me much I didn’t already suspect – that paper-and-ink books will survive because people like collecting and displaying them, taking them to bed, scribbling in them, using them to trigger memories of significant times in their lives and, although this may mainly be me, smelling them.
The panel’s librarian did, however, point out that reference books have become data banks; that you need no longer lick your index finger and thumb before looking for information in the thick pages of encyclopaedias, dictionaries or gazetteers. Google will do it for you, and this is why I spent half my adult life building up a fine collection of reference works and the other half trying to find someone who might take them off my hands.
But books of, for example, fiction, poetry, biography, history, philosophy or even pesky self-help manuals look quite secure. Waterstones for example, has found that the tendency towards e-publishing is going slightly into reverse and other ink-and-paper forms like newspapers, magazines and, well, forms, seen to have plenty of life in them yet –in fact, we were told, ancient books and scrolls might stay readable for longer then the electronic publications now being archived for posterity. The books which won’t last physically, apparently, are mid-20th century cheap paperbacks – Ian Flemings and Dennis Wheatley’s, for example, which at only a few decades old, have now become yellow and flaky.
When one of the audience at the university event asked, in that languid academic way, ‘What is a book, exactly?’, I felt like yelling out ‘I know! Bleak House – that’s a book. Definitely,’ because it’s a book even when it’s reproduced on Kindle.
I think a more interesting question would have been ‘Would a modern Dickens, given all the computer tools now available, have been happy to write something which could have been compiled by Caxton?’ (And sorry to enter into futile speculation, but I’ve been overdosing lately on Back to the Future, which, like just about all sci-fi, had great fun getting the future ludicrously wrong).
Anyway, I don’t think Dickens, with his staggering energy and histrionic temperament, would have been able to resist disturbing the passive relationship between book and reader. He would have felt the need to pep up his electronic books with sound effects, moving pictures, music and other inventions. Great writing and complex ideas and stories would still be at the core of the book, but you wouldn’t take it upstairs to lull yourself to sleep.
For instance, to return to Bleak House, the never-ending rain at the Lincolnshire estate of Sir Leicester and Lady Deadlock could be accompanied by electronically-produced raindrops running relentlessly down the relevant pages, and when Dickens comes to his electrifying passage on the death of poor Jo the crossing sweeper (‘Dead, Your Majesty. Dead, my lords and ladies...Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day’) perhaps the words could jump out of the text and be spoken as well as printed – it is, after all, a piece of oratory rather than plain prose.
I think Dickens, as devoted to acting as much as to writing, would have liked to have read it himself but, since we’re time travelling with all the resources of the internet at our beck, why not Aneurin Bevan or Benedict Cumberbatch? Or maybe you could chose your favourite synthesised voice, probably avoiding, unless drunk, Wee Jimmy Krankie.
Which isn’t to say that any of this would be a good idea; just that books, as fixed words and pictures appearing by whatever method on a series of facing pages, surely have a lot further to go.