There’s a scene at the end of the The Name Of The Rose where Sean Connery comes out of a burning building with an armful of books. He lets them fall to the floor and – he’s got more underneath his robes: big beautiful books that he can’t or won’t let be destroyed by the fire. And he’s heartbroken. The burning building behind him is a library.
Sean’s character loves the information in books, the sharing of ideas that it makes possible, the communication of learning. (The story was written and filmed before the internet was invented, BTW.)
In the Middle Ages there weren’t many books. There weren’t many readers. Books were used to spread ideas, but mainly they were pretty things to be shown off by rich patrons who would never read them. A kind of Swarovski-covered skull, if you will.
Mainly books were used to nail ideas down and control people – “it’s in the book, so it must be right. You can’t argue with the written word. It’s enshrined in law – look, it’s in the book. Can’t read it? Then take my word for it.”
Once it was written down – the Nicene Creed, anyone? – it was gospel. That’s it, can’t argue about that any more, done and dusted. Move on to the next point to be clarified and controlled.
And painted up in gold and purple.
Few books, used to control.
Then came the printing press and suddenly people had access to quickly-produced cheaper books. Ideas spread further and faster. More people learned to read. More people questioned what they read, what had been decided by earlier generations and written down as an undeniable rule. Times had changed, or maybe those people hadn’t been consulted when the rule was written. So they argued. Reformation, anyone?
Now, zip forward another 500 years to the Kindle generation.
We read constantly. Being able to use a mobile phone includes using evn the shrtst txt msg. Blogging, tweeting, Facebook, forums – all use literacy skills.
So why are we seeing the resistance to Kindle and its ilk?
People say they love the feel of a book. The smell, the crisp corners, the unbroken spine of a new book. Even second-hand books have their charm – the names of previous owners in the flyleaf, a library ticket, rolling-tobacco in the creases of the pages, even BookCrossing.
Book as artefact. It goes back to the original books, the records of state kept by ancient civilisations to ensure that people paid taxes. Artefacts.
Want any more proof? The Lindisfarne Gospels.
Beautiful to look at, prestigious to own, valuable to sell off even for its raw materials – or as happens now, as prints and facsimiles. The work of many hands over many years, to copy words which were already known and written down elsewhere in many places, and embellish them with gold. Fragile things, and precious.
The words themselves are not important – the artefact is what matters. The Vedas survived in Sanskrit by memory, passing it on even to the extent of forgetting what the language meant; but learnt by rote, unchanged, eternal, proof that writing is not about books.
There are more people on the planet since the great mediaeval book-artefacts were created, more readers, more writers, more books.
(Maybe not more ideas.)
When someone says “I love that book!” chances are they aren’t talking about the Lindisfarne Gospels. They’re talking about the story.
Me, for example – I love the Lord Of The Rings.
I bought it in hardback after reading it in a borrowed paperback trilogy, and wanted to own a copy of the story myself, in a single copy so I didn’t lose one book out of the three (I was constantly moving lodgings at that point in my life so that was a real issue). I bought it with a book token – a birthday present from a thoughtful aunt-and-uncle. Hence the hardback. A gift. An artefact.
Now, if I lose the copy of LOTR that I bought with that book token I’d lose the connection with the artefact, the personal history behind that particular purchase, and the poignancy of the gift with the memories I attach to the book.
(I always asked for tokens – if anyone gave me cash, it went on rent or groceries and disappeared, but if it was book tokens I had to spend it on something else.) A replacement wouldn’t be the same.
I won’t forget the characters or the story. I can obtain another copy of the story in book format, or as an ebook, a film, a board game, an audio book or the R4 production. The artefact is gone. Frodo and Sam still survive.
As a writer who puts out my work as ebooks, what does this mean to me?
Do I value my work less, because it’s on an electronic platform and not in hardback?
You’re reading this without paying me for my thoughts, and I wrote it without expectation of you paying for it. It’s my blog, you’re here as a visitor, I don’t charge visitors to my home for a cup of tea.
The ideas in my stories are more important to me than the form in which I deliver them. The stories, the characters, the heart-stopping moments – these are all ideas, not artefacts. They spring from my head, not my hands. If you enjoy them, that’s what matters, not that you can prop up a café table with the solids.
When it comes to my own work, an ebook is fine. If you love it, that’s fine, and if you don’t that’s also fine. There are plenty more books out there for you, and I hope you find at least one you can love.
On an e-reader it’s not an artefact. It’s a story. If you love the story you’ll read it again – on your e-reader. If maybe someday it comes out as a film you’ll go and see it and spend hours arguing with your friends over it.
But books like the Lindisfarne gospels – not books but artworks, handcrafted objects from history, testaments to the beauty of human endeavour – I have to admit that I’d be in the burning tower with Sean.