Fahrenheit 451

In defence of stories

pipeMost of my reading – beyond blog posts and other online articles – is in the form of journal articles and textbooks. I don’t read as much fiction as the person I’d like to be would want to read, although recently I’ve picked up an interest in gothic classics. This started with an idle purchase of The Curious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and now I’m halfway through Dracula. Dracula is especially interesting – beautifully written, evocative, and excellently  paced, I’ve been not only engrossed in the macabre horror but also fascinated by its social commentary, especially what it has to say on the role of women. I’d recommend it; go and download it from Project Gutenberg if you have an e-reader.

Of course, many people have objections to e-readers, and I frequently get caught up defending ebooks. Some objections I think are important and worthy of consideration, and present challenges which may or may not be skilfully navigated. Others leave me at best, baffled, and at worst, rather sad. These objections I think of, ironically, as romantic objections. They’re often summed up with the phrase ‘I just like books’. I used it often myself, before I was bought an Kindle for my 30th.

‘I just like books’ would be a fine argument, if books were uniformly beautiful, either luxuriously bound or sentimentally dog-eared from years of love. But most are not. Most are collections of dead, bleached tree pulp with black marks in the form of letters printed them. What is beautiful – or terrible, or vital – in a book is not the book, it’s the meaning. Yes, how the meaning emerges is magical. But the marks on the page remain the same, no matter the vehicle of delivery. I imagine half the West’s magicians will disagree, but the matter the mark is made on doesn’t matter.

Books aren’t information, and they’re certainly not stories. Magic doesn’t inhere in things, but comes when silent words are transformed into private worlds. To mistake that magical transformation for something essential in a book is to do a terrible disservice to the real wonder of reading.

This fetishism of technology runs both ways, of course – people will rave about e-readers just as much as other’s extol the purity of dead vegetable matter. To do either is foolish – they both have good points, they both have flaws. Books gloriously don’t need batteries, just a spark of consciousness; e-readers are wonderful informational TARDISes,  so you can hold a library in the palm of your hand. For those like me who want to travel light through this life, e-readers are a blessing, and books an indulgence. These days if I’m going to buy a physical one I do want it to be beautiful, and some books are very, very beautiful. Books as precious decadence.

(As an aside, one of my absolute favourite books is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel – a rich symphony of a story, if you have any love for fantasy, alternate history or, indeed Jane Austen, you should give it a go. You can buy it in ebook form but the original hardback is gorgeous; beautifully typeset, rich paper, sturdy binding. I mislaid my copy and have just gone about buying the hardback again. I just like it)

Related to the blanket dismissal of e-readers is a background concern over the breathless proclamations of the technoprophets, that books will soon be a thing of the past. Look – books aren’t going anywhere; they’ll never be any more obsolete than pamphlets (and if you think pamphlets are obsolete you’ve clearly never been in a doctor’s surgery). Take a look at the crumpled origamic form of an Ordnance Survey map, squint, and you’ll see a modern scroll. I suspect (remembering, of course, that I don’t know what I’m talking about) that when a technology is sufficiently embedded and when it still offers such obvious benefits over newer tech, it persists; after all we still have candles, despite electric light. So books might well polarise, becoming either throwaway pulp or intrinsically precious objects, but they’ll persist in our lives and culture.

After all, we’ll all need something to keep us entertained once the lights go out.

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