Why Print Will Never Die

While I’ve embraced the technology to publish my own stories as ebooks, I’m still firmly in the dead-tree camp when it comes to reading. I’ve also published my own paperbacks through CreateSpace, a neat little library so far, and plan to publish more. I haven’t branched out into hardbacks – yet.

The subtle interplay of communion between writers and readers demands I do so, some time soon, because hardback books have an enduring appeal that honours the work within (and makes it easier to stack them around the home when you run out of bookshelves).

Take a look at this.

Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard

In itself, not an especially nice hardback (not any more). Cheap, in fact. And the story – Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard – not one of the classics.

I picked up this book from a second-hand sale at my local Red Cross hall almost thirty years ago. It’s a hundred years old.

The story’s even older.

But I can read the book as easily now as its first owner did back in 1914. It might still be readable a hundred years from now, if I look after the artefact that carries the story within.

Who was that first reader?

I’ll never know. The label on the inner flyleaf says:

R Harris & Son, Booksellers, Printers & Stationers, Northampton

Booksellers' label, R Harris & Son, Northampton

(click to visit the Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels)


– but there’s no indication of the buyer: no bookplate, no inscription, nothing. The only hand-written mark inside the front cover is a pencilled price, which isn’t original – it’s £2, and the book itself says it’s part of Hodder & Stoughton’s Sevenpenny Library.

Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard, 1914 edition

Maybe the person who bought this book was a worker in one of the nation’s munitions factories. Maybe a scholar keen for a dose of exciting adventure between Latin and Scripture classes, or a soldier on his way to the Western Front hoping to snatch a quick read while he waited to go up the line to Ypres.

Whoever that first reader might have been, I can’t imagine the book stayed with them until I discovered it in the Red Cross hall in the mid-1980s. So where did this book lie between being printed and my finding it seventy years later in a second-hand sale?

Perhaps in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, or close by.

Someone – not me – spilled a cup of tea over the cover, and left it long enough to soak in and leave a stain on the pressed board.

The spine is faded to a much paler shade than the front and back covers, which says the novel was shelved for some time.

Is there part of previous owners in the pages of second-hand books? Even those which have been spared the casual underline, the scribbled notes in the margins, the corner of a page folded down?

Mostly forensics would pick up traces of me in this Nada The Lily, I’ve had the book so long. It’s travelled with me all over Scotland, to university in Birmingham and working life elsewhere in England.

Some of my books, like the copy of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception/Heaven And Hell I bought in the same Red Cross hall, have tiny flakes of rolling tobacco in the crease. (The link is to the 1959 Penguin paperback, just like mine.)

Others, like the Marija Gimbutas I bought recently, arrived in the post with old bookmarks – a photograph of a train in India, and a sketch of a girl’s face.

Nada The Lily had a surprise for me too, when I opened the book to re-read it after a number of years.

Tucked near the end, the top folded down against the pages and hidden by the surrounding hardback cover, was a bookmark I’d used the last time I read the book.

Cadbury Schweppes visitor pass, 1990s

Yes, that’s a visitor’s pass from Cadbury Schweppes (as they were then), back in the mid-1990s. I worked there briefly in my first-ever corporate job, what would now be an unofficial internship, and 2015 Me has deduced that I was reading Nada The Lily in my lunchbreak.

So this book’s like an old friend, rediscovered.

Now I know that I can’t have bought it any later than 1994. I didn’t have access to the Red Cross hall any more, and I don’t know if they still held second-hand book sales. (When I think of all the amazing books I got from the Red Cross book sale, all cheap, I’m glad I was in that place and time.)

If I’d been able to download all those amazing books into an e-reader, would I feel the same way?

Galazi, King of the Grey People

No, I don’t think so.

Who amongst us had a Windows PC or a smartphone in 1994? The technology of Then would be obsolete Now.

Not so my hardback of Nada The Lily, still going strong like a frail old lady a hundred years on.

This is the lure of writing historical fiction: technology doesn’t change. Dave Wake pointed this out in a post on electric cars, and Charles Stross writes about the frustrations of writing near-future fiction when the pace of technological change is so flippin’ fast.

Books written with contemporary settings age so. Michael Scott Rohan’s fab Spiral trilogy, set partly in an international freight handling office in the late 1980s, has all the awful feel of that era laid down in black and white so evocatively I have to force myself to read through those sections so I can get to the parts with less tech (and more adventure).

The modern world changes; this Nada, still frozen in time, no less fixed than when I bought it some time before ’94. And the story inside?

Nada The Lily tells the story of the rise to power in southern Africa of the Zulu nation under Shaka kaSenzangakhona. (Much of Haggard’s tale is lurid and sensationalist and no doubt insulting to local sensibilities. The Victorians were big on their Noble Savages – including Scots, Welsh and Yorkshiremen – while ignoring the sufferings under Empire.)

The story is written as a memoir, in 1891, of events which are known to have taken place before 1828. Even back then the novel was historical fiction which avoided the snag of age-defining elements or real-time sociopolitical change.

(By the time of the events of my novel SHADOWBOX, set in 1832, Haggard’s story had already finished. And he was writing three years after the events in my novel THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. Time travel, eh?)

H Rider Haggard falls into the same category as another of my favourite writers, Alexandre Dumas. Their stories have the same enduring appeal and have stood the test of time for over a hundred years. Characters who come alive in their circumstances, in vivid settings, facing choices many of us can’t imagine – and surviving to tell the tale.

Much like my copy of Nada The Lily survived in my travels to tell the tale, to me, of where I found it and where I last read it. If I’d opened up an electronic copy – even if I’d been able to read it in all its typeset beauty – would I have been able to learn as much from the file as I have from this hardback?

I doubt it. While ebooks might be here to stay (points over there) as long as the internet survives, print will never die.

Oh, and one more thing: the publisher. This hardback was published in 1914. The publisher was Hodder & Stoughton.

Hodder & Stoughton, MCMXIV

And they’re still very much in business.

The Scent Of History

Ah, scent. Of all the senses, it’s often used to anchor memory in the mind, so that the whiff of fresh mown grass takes you back to childhood summers or the odour of rank socks reminds you of house-sharing with a sporty type.

But what about events or places outside our experience?Odour

It’s been said that outer space smells of dust. And if a novelist tells me that a made-up food tastes like peaches and shampoo, I can make an educated guess at what that might be like without trying to experience it myself.

Sometimes, however, it helps to smell a scent first-hand.

From the more recent past, some of the things which perfumed history are still around.

For example, while writing a story set in the summer of 1914, I might describe the perfume one of the female characters was wearing. How would I know what that smelled like? Blogs like Yesterday’s Perfume show the way.

It might not mean much to other writers, but I am keen to keep my historical fiction as accurate as possible before I twist it my way. If I write that a character was drenched in Tabac Blond, he or she better not be drenched before 1919.

Likewise my latest short story, Dogger, Forties, German Bight. It’s set in the 1950s, in England, and the country was still under post-war rationing. My characters aren’t wealthy, and they live in a small rural community on the shore of the North Sea.

They aren’t the sort to drench themselves in Tabac Blond, or L’Heure Bleu. They smell of ordinary things: carbolic soap, newspaper ink, Brylcreem.

I know what these things smell like, because they’re still around. Carbolic soap, in big rough pink blocks, was the staple of school washrooms until at least the late 1980s. You can even still find Izal Medicated! Listerine has that clean sharp buzzing taste, the original version, but was it as harsh in the 1920s?

The trench hospital montage in the Imperial War Museum – when I visited a few years ago, anyway – hit you in the schnozz with a waft of dried blood and TCP. At the time I was up to my eyeballs in Great War history, including the John Buchan volumes (not all 23, I hasten to add), so I reckon the museum curators had it spot on. After all, there were still a good few WW1 veterans around when the display was constructed, and nothing beats experience when it comes to recreating something from scratch.

In the (mighty fine) novel Perfume, The Story Of A Murderer, a hero with no scent of his own lives surrounded by the odours of Paris and Provence which the author describes in lavish detail. We have perfume recipes from the era in which the book is set. We even have perfumes that claim to be from that era, and the scents of the Parisian fish markets and tanneries have remained unchanged for centuries.

We have the same olfactory organs, the same sensitivities, as people in the past. Once you smell a scent and know its name, you can use that memory to translate others. Hence wine buffs going on about “oak” and “black cherries” and “lemon pips” and “the scent of fresh linen on the spring day a child takes her first Communion”.

There are other sources of smells from the past. Historians have recreated Bronze Age beer, and made ancient-style bread, using modern stock of the old genotypes of wheat and barley and rye. Archaeologists in Siberia regularly excavate mammoths so we know, or can make a good guess, what their diet was, and what they might have smelled like on the wind blowing across the taiga when the Ice Age frosted Europe.

But when you have a truly lost scent, or the scent of an alien planet, how can you convey that on the page?

Giuseppe Baldini at the mixing desk

Du Riechst So Gut…

Published in: on March 12, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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