So, according to Penelope Lively speaking at the Ways
with Words Festival, e-books are for “bloodless nerds” and something no “no
self-respecting bibliophile” should want. Although Lively goes on to concede an
e-book reader might have its uses, her reaction strikes me as a surprisingly strong and atypical of anyone I know (none of whom I would describe as bloodless, and many of whom are as far from nerd-dom as it’s possible to be) who has used a Kindle.
But what about this bibliophile idea? For centuries, any published writing (fiction or non-fiction, biography, poems, recipes or exhibition catalogues) has been indivisible from its physical medium, the printed page bound in cloth, card or leather. Anyone who loved reading would, by definition, love books. So is this no longer the case? E-learning designers have shown us that even academic learning is not confined to books, and now the Kindle and other gadgets are proving that the reading and assimilation of extended
prose can also be achieved without paper and ink. I could love reading and not
possess a bookshelf, never mind a library. But is that likely? For most of us, including Kindle users, the book continues to be a seductive medium and one that’s the basis of much of much of our cultural heritage. Only today I came upon two boxes containing paperback novels of the seventies and some old books culled from my childhood home – including the ‘Alice’ I’ve photographed here. Although I fell upon these books like old friends, I hadn’t actually missed
them in the last nine years, and I only found them because a mass clear-out is
under way chez nous. But will I throw them away? Forcing myself to be ruthless,
I’m hanging on to around a third to squeeze in to our limited shelf-space, not just for myself but for my children and the children they may one day have. How dreadful for them to come to Grannie’s house and not see books on the shelves to play with, to puzzle over and eventually read. If by then they are curiosities, so much the better. Browsing an online library can never be quite the same.
As an ex-librarian I have been custodian of all kinds of book collections and know that historical bibliography (the study of the physical book) is both
fascinating and crucial in some areas of literature. (I even sneaked a small
bibiographical puzzle into my first novel). But the need to trash large numbers
of out-of-date text and reference books has cured me of the sentimental
attachment to books qua books that many people seem to have, giving rise to that all too common cry of ‘I can’t throw away a book.’ Sorry, if your
shelf is full and it’s not an all-time favourite, man up and do the deed!
So maybe I was never a true bibliophile, (in the sense of book-collector) in the first place, because with one or two exceptions it’s what’s between the covers, or the lines, that matters to me, rather than its physical presence. In this sense e-books give me a kind of freedom. I can read, then store or discard as I choose without clogging up house space or recycling facilities. But I have no doubt that if any book is really meaningful to me, I’ll go and buy a copy of what for me will always be ‘the real thing.’
If Penelope Lively (whose Moon Tiger and Road to Lichfield are still among my
all-time favourites) has made me cross, I think it’s in her assumption that book
lovers and Kindle user are mutually exclusive categories. Most people I know
have embraced e-readers as something that in their convenience and flexibility
can add to their appreciation of prose. I’m sure if she tried one she’d feel