How we read

As the world of print recedes, what is lost and what is gained?



A declaration of interest: this article is written by a writer. I don’t say a good writer, but a full-time professional writer, and if you ask any representative of this dying breed how they feel about the apparent dissolution of print in the face of ebooks and websites, they will almost all say the same thing: they will tell you they are against it. Paper pages remind them of paper money: of the civilised advances paid before the electronic undermining of book prices prompted most authors to develop a sideline, usually teaching the profession from which they can no longer make a living.
But the attachment of writers to the old, tangible media is not just about money. The physical book seems like a fitting reward for the labour of writing a book. It is flattering that third parties – typesetters, printers, designers – are roped in on your behalf. A physical book represents closure, whereas ebook publication means becoming part of the eternal, energy-sapping flux of the internet. You have to do all your own marketing: blogging or tweeting about how great you are in defiance of all those childhood injunctions to be modest; and there are people out there who aspire to pick your work apart electronically, “remix” it in the name of some democratic hippyish ideal. If you become involved in that sort of interactivity, then you might have to spend a long time defending your vision or just lying awake and worrying about the assaults made upon it by people who, surely, ought to be making their own stuff up.
Fortunately we writers, being writers, can write about this. Whereas I don’t believe I have read a single work by a milkman lamenting that most people now buy their milk from a shop instead of having it delivered, books fretting over the death of print form one of the genres of the moment. 
The shortest of the books before us, but the philosophical heavyweight, is Book Was There by Andrew Piper, a Canadian professor of literature. The title is a quote from Gertrude Stein that is even more irritating when written in full: “Book was there, it was there”, the point being that we were reading something or other at all the staging posts of our lives. Piper wants us all to calm down and have a sensible discussion about this “late age of print”, but he begins with such a compelling evocation of the tactile pleasure of a book, its “graspability”, that you think there could no arguments on the other side. He discusses a painting of 1864 by Adolf von Menzel, “one of the most sensuous depictions of the relationship between a hand and a book I have ever seen”. The hand actually obscures the book it is holding. The reader, holding a book, mimics the gesture of prayer. In ancient and medieval art, says Piper, the open hand is the sign of divine calling, and so when reading, we call out and are called to. Books are also proxies for our hands: they hold things.
The book is contained and finite, and the web is not. But there has always been too much to read. “Read much, not many,” said Pliny the Younger. In this and many other ways Piper shows the apparent internet revolution as being a continuum of book culture. He compares a typical web page with medieval manuscripts. They, too, “revelled in cacophony”. The roots of file-sharing are traced back to 18th-century London’s coffee houses. On the subject of this vaunted internet “sharing”, Piper makes the point that for sharing to have moral worth, it should involve sacrifice – a cost. “To this end, we need – brace yourself for this – to embrace DRM.”
On the face of it, Ian Sansom’s book on paper is chronicling the shift to new media but he and his publishers seem conflicted about whether paper is disappearing or not. The book is subtitled an “elegy” for paper; but it is surtitled a “celebration” of paper.
The Missing Ink is, perhaps, more justifiably elegiac, being a highly readable, casually elegant look at a “modest, pleasurable, private skill” that “is about to vanish from our lives altogether”: the art of handwriting. Philip Hensher, like Sansom, is steeped in his subject. He once wrote a 300,000-word novel by hand. As a boy, he saw the signature of Elizabeth I, with all those zigzags descending beneath. It was “love at first sight”. He recalls first seeing his own father’s signature, which resembled “a knife in a wound”.


Lastupdate on : Mon, 17 Dec 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Mon, 17 Dec 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Tue, 18 Dec 2012 00:00:00 IST

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