When you sell a man a book you don't just sell him 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue. You sell him a whole new life. - Christopher Morley
What is a book?
No, seriously. Think about it for a moment. Is a book a container for words or the words contained therein? My first novel exists as a series of 0’s and 1’s stored on my computer’s hard drive, as a printed copy in my bookcase, as a professionally bound edition but more importantly it exists in my head. If all the computers died and some alien virus tore through the planet and destroyed every scrap of paper that exists on the planet would my book cease to exist?
At the end of Fahrenheit 451 Montag the conflicted fireman gets to meet living books:
"I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver's Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and-this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag. Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."
Everyone laughed quietly.
"It can't be," said Montag.
"It is," replied Granger, smiling. "We're book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they'd be found. Micro-filming didn't pay off; we were always travelling, we didn't want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it. We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ, it's here. And the hour is late. And the war's begun. And we are out here, and the city is there, all wrapped up in its own coat of a thousand colours. What do you think, Montag?"
"I think I was blind trying to do things my way, planting books in firemen's houses and sending in alarms."
Living books already exist and I’m not talking about someone with an eidetic memory like Kim Peek, the guy who inspired the film Rain Man. There is an organisation called the Human Library made up of living books:
A Living Book is a person, that has chosen to be a public representative of a certain group. An example of how people can be, if only minds are open long enough to find out, who and what they really are.
We talk about books speaking to us. Well this organisation takes that literally. They even have bestsellers.
What is a book?
At the end of The Day After Tomorrow books are also fuel but for a different reason. The survivors are freezing to death in a library. So they set fire to the books. One book survives though. A male employee clings to a rare copy of the Gutenberg Bible – the first printed book in history – and won’t give it up. Another survivor questions his motives by asking if he expects God to save him. He replies that he doesn’t believe in God. Rather, he is only saving this early edition of the Bible because its printing represents the beginning of ‘The Age of Reason.’ It’s not just a book. The words inside it aren’t important. But the book is.
That’s fiction, of course, but the fact is that people have actually risked the flames themselves to save a book:
Not long after the United States invaded Iraq, a memorable photograph appeared: an Iraqi man hurrying away from the Library of Baghdad through a smoky, chaotic street, his arms filled, overfilled, burdened down, with books. The books - some of them large and heavy, like art books or old records of some kind - may have been rare treasures, or they may have been merely whatever he could gather up in the confusion of the burning building. He may have been a librarian, or he may have been only a reader. I know he was not a looter, because his face showed not only distress and fear, but passionate grief.
One of the books in question was the Sarajevo Haggadah and this is not the first time it has escaped the flames:
A priest spared it from the book-burnings of the Inquisition in Venice in 1609 by writing in it "revisto per mi" – "I have approved this" – and signing his name. – Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The shelf-life of shadows’, The Guardian, 19th January 2008
There’s a lot of talk about e-books at the moment. They wouldn’t have to worry about fire. Assuming they were backed up somewhere. The revolution has been promised/threatened for decades, the end of the printed page, yada yada, but it hasn’t happened yet and it hasn’t happened now. The technology is available but it was available ten years ago when my wife first bought me my Rocket eBook. The Rocket eBook when first introduced in 1998 retailed for $499. It weighs 22 ounces, can hold about 4000 pages and with a memory expansion up to 160,000 pages! Its battery life is around 40 hours without the backlight on. The Wikipedia article comparing e-book readers doesn’t even have it on its list any more. I liked it. It had cylindrical batteries which provided a nice ‘handle’ to hold the thing by and I’ve no idea how good the current devices are but it was perfectly readable even back then. You could add notes, underlining and bookmarks and change the font size from 10- to 28-point. It could read HTML, Word documents, and ASCII text files as well as its own custom format; no support for PDF unfortunately. But it didn’t set the world on fire.
Can I just mention here that I’ve never seen a film in 3D? The nearest I’ve gotten to it was a DVD my daughter bought me of Family Guy: Blue Harvest (its Star Wars recreation); it has a set of the old paper glasses but it just didn’t look right and I gave up. 3D is back in vogue again. And not just in multiplexes. 3D-TV is here. So they say. They say a lot of stuff. They said the book was dead and LPs. The cynics believe that it’s all a marketing ploy. I have mixed feelings about marketers. The worst kind of marketer will try to sell you something you don’t need for money you don’t have. At the moment they’re telling me that I need high definition. I am not joking, I can’t tell the difference between ordinary TV and HDTV. I have a HD-ready TV. It will take pictures up to a resolution of 1366 x 768. It’s not a huge TV. It’s 42" but that’s about twice the size of our old TV. All I can think of when I watch it is how huge it is. The first thing I watched on it was the latest Star Trek film and I was completely satisfied with the experience . . . and it wasn’t even hi def! I don’t need hi def.
Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on September 28, 1987. At that time I had a black and white portable. I actually still have it even though it’s useless. When someone got me a video of the programme we borrowed a colour portable and watched it on that. In fact we watched it twice in a row. It had been years since I’d owned a colour TV. Just the colour was amazing. You see I remember the switch from black and white to colour in the late sixties. People said they would sit and watch nothing but the new colour test card and they were not joking. Everything was suddenly vibrant.
Now though you have to have hi def. You simply have to.
HDTV is a gimmick. 3DTV is a gimmick. E-book readers are a gimmick.
- A device employed to cheat, deceive, or trick, especially a mechanism for the secret and dishonest control of gambling apparatus.
- An innovative or unusual mechanical contrivance; a gadget.
- An innovative stratagem or scheme employed especially to promote a project: an advertising gimmick.
- A significant feature that is obscured, misrepresented, or not readily evident; a catch.
Some gimmicks catch on. Some do not. Gimmicks are not automatically bad but marketers have made us wary of anything strangers tell us we have to have or we will be unhappy.
I watched a film over a while back called The Joneses. The Joneses are the Joneses that we’re all trying to keep up with, the people who are the first ones to have the must-have products: the cars, the video games, the watches, the dresses, the things that say so much about who we are. I do not need a 42" TV. I bought one because that’s what’s available, I can afford it, TV is something we watch a lot of and it was on offer (I shopped around for the best deal). Part of me thinks it looks ridiculous. What the hell am I doing with a think that size in my living room? I’ll get used to it though, like I got used to my last TV which was my first widescreen TV. I remember being so pleased with that purchase and now it looks such a sorry wee thing sitting in my office waiting to see what fate has in store for it.
I don’t actually have a lot of books. It’s something I feel guilty about. I’m a writer so I should have thousands of them. But I don’t. I have a few hundred. Maybe Carrie and I have a thousand between us, just. The problem for me was that I was never a voracious reader. My daughter is, as was her mother who could read a book day, but I think I’ve always had too much going on and reading was something that needed to be fitted in. When Carrie and I bought this flat we decided to move a bit further out to give us time to read on the bus. Before that we were barely on the bus for ten minutes and you can’t do any quality reading when you’re watching for your stop to come up. So we moved and started reading again. I even used my Rocket eBook a few times – I distinctly remember reading Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London on it – but not many. I felt a little self-conscious sitting there with this odd contraption not that anyone gave me a second glance at that time in the morning.
Things are changing. Things already have changed and will continue to change. A film used to be an experience. Then it became a thing in a box. You used to have to arrange your life around watching a film. I remember my dad taking me to see The Ten Commandments in the cinema and that was an experience; that would probably have been circa 1967. Now films have become ephemeral again. People watch them online, they stream them.
The same goes for music and even literature, if you go back far enough; you went to performances, you didn’t expect the performers to come to you or to be able to retain the performances in anything other than your memory. And then people learned how to cram all the experience into boxes and the possession of those boxes became the be all and end all for some people. They forgot what was in the boxes, some of them, and the boxes became symbols, nothing more, like the bottles of wine people spend small fortunes on never intending to drink.
I don’t have many first editions in my collection. Not ones that are worth anything apart from a copy of Dream of Fair to Middling Women which my wife bought me as a pressie. I have a few comics that are first editions which are worth a bob or two but there’s only one I haven’t read and that’s because it came already sealed with ‘bubblegum cards’ – or at least what I think of as bubblegum cards, trading cards, inside – and if I open it then it goes down in value. What I have read, however, is that the quality of the bag is not 250-gauge, high clarity, low density polyethylene and is actually damaging the comic. What do I do? Keep it as sold or protect my investment?
What is a book?
I always thought a book was something to be read, in whole or in part. That it has the potential to be read isn’t really enough. Why buy a book and not read it? I’m just glad that generations to come will not have that to worry about because all they’ll be buying will be the code to display pixels on a screen. There will be no rare books any more. Or then again there might just be. If writers don’t distribute their books widely then you could see kids swapping code in the playgrounds of the future which I think they’ll find a lot easier than copies of The Exorcist which was the one I remember.
A book can be in more than one place at a time. A book can be more than one thing at a time.
What is a book? A series of little printed signs – essentially only that. It is for the reader to supply himself the forms and colours and sentiments to which these signs correspond. It will depend on him whether the book be dull or brilliant, hot with passion or cold as ice. Or, if you prefer to put it otherwise, each word in a book is a magic finger that sets a fibre of our brain vibrating like a harp-string, and so evokes a note from the sounding- board of our soul. No matter how skilful, how inspired, the artist's hand; the sound it wakes depends on the quality of the strings within ourselves. – Anatole France
On August 5th 2010, Google estimated that there were approximately 129,864,880 unique books in the world.