The web and blog page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: is randomly decrepid and is neo-bankrupt: is so analogue it's anal.
Quite a few times on the internet recently I have stumbled across a collection of startling photographs taken of old Cincinnati Public Library, bulldozed in 1955: greyscale, razor sharp images of silhouetted and bookish colonnades, redolent of the past and its cultural values, framed by tomed espaliers, shelved trusses laden with bookish fruit, in fact an orchard of typography and bound learning.
Libraries speak volumes of my youthful, innocent past. As a child, waiting inside them for my mother to sate her gannet greed for Mazo de la Roche or Pearl S. Buck, I would feed my perversion for one page snatches of Malcolm Saville and Eric Linklater. Or gape with fascination at the covers of Compton Mackenzie’s multi-volume autobiographical Octaves (I could play Scott Joplin on the piano keyboard that decorated the covers) or unpick the lattice decoration on the Monica Dickens’ (Mermaid edition) dust wrappers, for libraries proffered an overwhelmingly tactile sensation. Each book invited a comforting caress, but importantly only a caress and never more. No one single book stole your heart, for libraries to the tender teenage frame represented the urgent clamour and welter of a world opening up, shambolic and frenzied, assaulting your mind with a kaleidoscope of colour, each colour never seen before. Libraries may have been designed to be curated mausoleums, each book obeliscal and a momento for the past; but in practice, and throughout my sexually charged adolescence, they were brothels for my young and promiscuous mind, blowholes for the carefree moment. The bell curve of your reading was shaped according to your youthful interest, but a library catered for the general and despite its Dewey numbered gendarmerie, a library struggled to be specific: in a library you fell in love with books, never a single book.
And I’ll never forget the lady librarians of my youth, luscious as they walked their book trolley like a poodle, radiating ambiguous sexual fallout. An adolescent rite of passage was to stand in a library queue – one of those acned crossing the equator moments when as a male pubescent pollywog I was presented with my nemesis, the female librarian, all drop dead gorgeous with long fingernails, ruby red lipstick, and names like Samantha – hoping lustfully that my Malcolm Saville would be signed out by Samantha or whichever lady librarian attracted my ardour at the time. The female librarian was a far more sensuous version of the school matron: she stamped my borrowing card and the slip attached to the front inside cover like a dominatrix (and she wobbled as she did it, and if I were Craig Raine I’d write no doubt a smutty poem about my effervescent lust, even today, for female librarians). Now, as a Shellback, I am still eager to pay any fine and to be a recipient of the extra, dedicated spanking session when I return a late book.
Of course one of the glories of the library is that it is like the nuclear Anglican parish church with its several congregations, one for each Sunday service – the King James early Communion, happy-clappy family service, evangelical evensong: a public library is radiantly democratic. It serves the vital – how to wire a house (if you really want to) or how to snag your woolie jumper while tending your allotment; it serves the blissful – Henry Williamson can be found next to Proust (unread, note the unstamped borrowed records on its front inside); they serve the dating industry – rows of unheard plays to take along to your next am-dram rehearsal (everyone knows am-dram societies are dating agencies, why else would anyone dress up to recite Sheridan?); gallons of poetry to serve the romantic – you can even call up the poetry of hapless hobo Francis Thompson for goodness sake; and so on. Libraries serve one and all without apology. Of course they serve also all denominations of culture, the low and the high and everything in between. How fitting that the Cincinnati library with its excess of high architecture and bold public statement, had a tacky, Braillesque entrance sign, an entrance to welcome all tastes.
Libraries have seen mass abuse in recent times. Bookshops too have witnessed mass closure; even the chain bookshops with their hitherto number crunching security are in retreat. Just as Tesco finished off the local butcher and candlestick maker, so too the digital onslaught of the internet and Kindle is seen as the coffin of the visceral library or bookshop experience. In truth the digital experience is but a nail in the coffin lid, as the ubiquity of television culture and computer games galore, declines in literacy and the stench of heresy in the (wretched) National Curriculum which suggests that a book serves only to provide a child with the tools to read rather than to be enjoyed as an object of pleasure – all these have killed off any sense that the book is a pillar of society’s well being.
I see little actual evidence that the internet has arrested the fate of the book, and indeed the internet appears to me to be a shallow and skeuomorphic confidence trick. Skeuomorphism is the design concept of making construct objects mimic the sensation, experience or appearance of their real-world counterparts and are used often as attempts to make the newperhaps less frightening, or seem familiar and comfortable, – for instance, clay pottery that has traits of its wooden counterparts from previous generations; or they may be attempts to break down educational or technical differences, or cultural influences – for instance, fresh iconography overwriting past belief systems. The World Wide Web’s original great strength and touted virtue was to create layers of information so that its users could mine that information as deep as they wished through hyperlinks, a new way of reading the world, a contrast to the rather linear approach of paper text. The internet has dissolved now in to something far less impressive, and my impression of it is that reading the news, say, on the internet is as linear as reading, say, the Guardian in a cafe (although having written that, I assume that nobody in the right mind would wish to read the dippy, liberal Guardian). It seems to me that the internet has distilled its essence to old static forms and the old architecture of creative thought. It’s like moonshine: tempting but not quite the real thing.
In fact the book seems to be cherished by its digital rivals, even its golden mean dimensions have been copied. The Kindle incorporates also non-visual skeuomorphs writ large: the hinged and page-turning movement of the book is enshrined within an eBook, its balance and weight, and so on. The movement and sound of a page turning is efficient, of course, and its purpose may offer a sense of geographical balance to the experience of reading what in other cultures would have been described as a scroll, and the brain functions better with gobbets of information within a defined boundary. Indeed for all the amazing virtues of digital media (and who would refer to a physical dictionary these days?), it is hopeless at mapping out any memory attached to the physical geography of a book.
All this suggests to me that digital formats, however bright and shiny, are not likely to sack the book, and I like Stephen Fry’s observation that the book’s experience will be rather like stairs in a public building: archaic architecture that will survive any threat of obsolescence from the more comfortable lift.
Amidst this fracas, the whole point about a book seems to have been lost. Books are vital life signs. They represent who we are as we travel on our life’s journey, they are to be cherished and chosen with care, for they reflect their buyer, at least at the time of having been bought, which is why we read them once and then house them forever, or even buy them with only the slightest intention of reading them. Books, above all else, are aspirational. The books that we cherish and line our houses with will reflect, or have once reflected, the aspirations of each of us; the ones that we cull will tend to be those in which we see no self reflection. I would posit that most books that I have sold in over 30 years as a bookseller have remained unread, and that most have been bought to fulfil a need other than their being read. Our personal libraries consist of what we have invested ourselves in, and serve as a reflection of who we are and, more importantly, who we wish to be. So many times I hear that still so many people prefer to read a physical book because they can see not just the book itself, but who they are whilst they read it. One thing designers can’t reproduce in the Kindle is the aspirational sensation that the tactile book offers.
The book’s commercial fall from grace in recent times, I suggest, has less to do with any supposed technical advantage of its digital rival, and more to do with the rise of other much simpler outlets that vie for our aspirational needs and attention. The book, of itself, appears to me to be a wonderful and secure piece of technology, finely tuned since Gutenberg’s day. Crucially it relies on a power source that is derived from ourselves and not from a power supply, and this is the essential difference between the digital and the analogue world: the analogue world breaks down, it falters, it resembles human breath and cadence, but it is at all times responsive in its failures: it breathes. And this is why we respond to the tactile, often clumsy bound book in an emotional way, very often in the same way that hifi cognoscente respond to the nostalgic echoes and forgiving resonance of vinyl above the CD or download. Neither do books succumb so readily to a commercial theme park where a consumer is tied in to one commercial brand – you buy a Kindle you buy from Amazon, simple. Nor is the book subject to censorship and inteference through the back door: it was vaguely humourous that in 2009 Amazon was able to, and did, delete from customers’ gadgets previously sold copies of 1984, after rights issues dispute embroiled the edition sold. Big Bruv rules OK.
So to go digital will not kill off the book. For many people a book’s purpose is to be only an object to read; it has been stripped of its aspirational quality. Maybe our aspirational yardstick – that is how we visualise who we wish to be – is to be found online with our diarrhetic jottings on Facebook, a carefully self-monitored environment of polished gemstone, honed to reflecting the image we hold of ourselves (and only secondly, I contend, to serve how others perceive us). That aspiration has migrated from the book is the book’s real threat, not its frailty against technology. This is a threat also to all vessels it sails in – be they public libraries or bookshops. And it highlights also perhaps today’s lack of desire to act as aspirational beings (but that is another topic).
My favourite picture of the Cincinnati collection is this: a gaggle of children await outside Cincinnati Library at 8:55am, entertaining themselves by reading their books before the library opens and they are allowed inside. The question I ask is if today’s world of wifi, Costa coffee on the hoof, impatience and the attention span of a gnat is a worthwhile replacement for this image? But the photograph is more than a black and white plate of nostalgia. It is an image of aspiration and imagination. And behind it, a cathedral comprised of words where, if we are not careful, Thomas Becket may yet be slain.