A conversation on the politics of literature
When political points can be scored by tearing up children’s books that are deemed too tolerant, what is a writer to do? Should they become an activist?
Go out to your local bookshop, advises Enda O’Doherty, and get in close with those Books You Haven’t Read, the Books To Read Next Summer and The Books To Fill Out Those Small Gaps That Are Still There On Your Shelves. Don’t come away empty-handed. They may not be there forever.
In the first chapter of his 1979 novel If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Italo Calvino introduces a character – the character is named “you” – who has just walked into a bookshop with the intention of buying a copy of a newly published book, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino.
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, The Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid manoeuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.
Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad’s very attractive new title, A History of The Book in 100 Books (British Library, 2014), is one well worth adding to your library, but don’t be misled: the one hundred books featured here – note the title – set out to tell the history of the book rather than history, or even the history of ideas, through the book. So this is not one of those Books That Tell You What You Should Have Read And Who Knows Still Might If You Get To Retire. Cave and Ayad’s intention rather is to show, through a historical survey of the book as artefact, the wide range of physical forms this information package has taken, the wide range of societies and cultures in which it has found a place and the wide range of purposes to which it has been adapted.
Many histories of the book begin with Gutenberg, with a perfunctory nod to what is seen as the prehistory – consisting chiefly of the European manuscript tradition – in the introductory chapter. Cave and Ayad, however, don’t bring on Gutenberg until page 94, one-third of the way through. If one wished to be a literalist, one might object that some of the artefacts featured in their early chapters are not really books at all but simply instances of things deemed worthy of being remembered, images daubed on cave walls, words scratched on animal bones, incised into clay tablets, written on papyrus and palm leaves, bamboo and bark. But with increasing doubts being expressed about the durability of Gutenberg’s technology less than six hundred years after its first appearance, and many commuters, as anyone can observe, now more ensconced in a “device” than in a book or newspaper, perhaps it is not a good idea to be too much of a literalist. The receptacle has changed over the millennia, and will no doubt change again. What we should perhaps ask is if a change in the carrier – the change that seems to be all around us – will necessarily transform the nature of what is carried and, if so, if this is likely to be harmful to intellectual culture.
Those of us brought up, or bringing our own children up, in middle class households will for the most part tend to regard reading as an unambiguous good, a habit very much to be encouraged. Remarking that a child “always has his nose stuck in a book” is not usually, except perhaps for the most macho of fathers, a lament. It is true that many children will tend to gravitate towards what their parents may consider “rubbish” but it is generally hoped that adolescent manias for Suzanne Collins or Gayle Forman will develop into a lifetime affection for… well, just books. Reading in childhood and adolescence can often be a compulsion or addiction, but perhaps even the most unlikely authors can be a gateway to Proust.
Occupying oneself with books was not always positively regarded however, particularly when it first began to surface in social groups who, it was felt, had no business reading. The cleric Johann Rudolf Gottlieb Beyer, writing in 1796, deprecated the rash of
readers of books who get up and go to bed with a book in their hands, who can’t put it aside at the dinner table, leave it close by them at work, take it with them on a walk and who cannot tear themselves away from whatever it is they are reading until they’ve finished it. But no sooner have they gobbled down the last page of a book than they’re looking for another one […] No smoker, no coffee drinker, no tippler, no gambler could be more attached to his pipe, his cup, his bottle or his card table than these bibliomaniacs are to their reading.
Other commentators of similar temper focused their scorn and heavy humour on the social standing of some of the new readers: a valet de chambre or footman reading, a maidservant reading, one’s tailor or bootmaker reading. But whatever for? Nor was scorn always the most extreme form that opposition to the spread of literacy might evoke. The Virginia (United States) Revised Code of 1818 decreed that “all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching them READING OR WRITING, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY”.
It is significant that Johann Beyer should have thought the thoughts and written the words he did in the decade which saw an increasingly insistent assertion of the rights of man and indeed, in France, bloody revolution against the established order. As a clergyman, he would have been part of the small educated and literate minority but also, through his privileged relationship with what is written – a category of superior standing to what is merely said – a figure of authority, a man able to pronounce on things definitively: this is what the Book says, so let us have no dissent. In the final decades of the eighteenth century however more people were becoming literate and reading – or being read to from – a variety of new books which openly and scandalously questioned the truth of many things, among them God’s creation of both rich men and poor men, each appointed to live honourably in their own estate. Where might this impertinent questioning end?
How real was the mania for reading that Beyer and many other conservative observers found so remarkable, and so annoying? Statistics on literacy are quite scarce and, where they do exist, need to be interpreted with care: if we know that, say, ten per cent of a population, at a given time, had a basic elementary education and therefore some ability to read a text this still does not tell us that they did read. We would need to know if they could read well enough to make the practice of regular reading pleasurable, or at least not intolerably burdensome. We would also need to know if books were available to them (in eighteenth century Germany, for example, eighty per cent of the population lived in the country, remote from any booksellers), or indeed if they could afford to buy them. Dr Johnson thought England “a nation of readers”, yet Edmund Burke, his near contemporary, estimated the real number in the 1790s to be eighty thousand out of a population of six million, that is, 1.33 per cent.
The low figure should not be that surprising: in 1788 a quarter of English municipalities still had no school. Further complications derive from differentiations between the sexes: fewer women than men were literate, though often women could read but not write. It is certainly the case that, from a low base, literacy was growing quite rapidly towards the end of the eighteenth century, and it was to make massive advances in the nineteenth. Gender differences persisted however in what was read and written. Women, in Protestant cultures in particular, would often read the Bible aloud to the family, and inscribe in it family births, marriages and deaths; men would read almanacs, which supplied information about farming and the weather, perhaps also newspapers, and would write in account books a record of how much they had paid for their seed or got for their livestock. The Breton writer Pierre-Jakez Hélias remembers there being two important books in the family home when he was growing up in the 1920s: one a life of the saints (Buhez ar zent), which was stored in his mother’s wedding chest, the other the Larousse dictionary, kept on the window ledge in the main living room, the one representing traditional France, religion, the family and the Breton language, the other a monument and authority of modern French secularism and positivism.
Early texts in our culture, in Europe or elsewhere, tended to be closely related to religious or magical practice. Egyptian papyrus, made from the pith of sedge grass from about 2900 BC onwards, could not be folded but was used in scrolls, which could be up to thirty centimetres high and as long as thirty metres. The finest were those written for funerary purposes, their function being to guide the soul going forth to the afterlife. Chinese bamboo “books” were written in ideograms on long slips, the writing going down the slip and then on to the next one immediately to its left. Bamboo was subject to decay and insect attack but was more likely to be preserved when sealed in tombs, like the Guodian Chu, whose 804 surviving slips, dating from about 300 BC, include extracts from several fundamental texts of Chinese thought, including the Confucian Book of Rites. Later Chinese books made with silk or paper retained the design principle of the bamboo slips. The Korean emperor Gojong had the entire Chinese Buddhist canon reproduced on birchwood blocks in the mid-thirteenth century after a previous set had been destroyed by a Mongol invasion. More than eighty thousand of these are still preserved at Haeinsa temple. Before paper was introduced by Europeans, Sumatran priests etched messages in the batak script onto bamboo pieces or sections. Black pigment was then rubbed in to make the letters more prominent. The same method is used to write on water buffalo bones. Nor have these techniques completely died out: they are still employed today, but principally on artefacts sold to tourists. Cave and Ayad also report that in the 1840s adolescent boys were known to send notes written on bamboo to girls, “praising their glossy hair, their full breasts and their strength in stamping rice”, but alas such methods of courtship seem to have died out.
The end of classical civilization in Europe, write Cave and Ayad, brought on “a long autumnal decline, a harsh winter in which little grew except in a few sheltered spots, followed by a spring in which fresh signs of life and the coming of flowers moved on to the rich warm and fruitful summer of the Renaissance”. This may be a somewhat overdramatic account of the cultural decline of the so-called Dark Ages, but literacy certainly did fall off during this long period. And yet
[t]hree things saved knowledge of the older world: first, the spread of the use of parchment as the normal writing surface; second, the general adoption of the codex form led to new ways of protecting texts (bookbindings), which improved the chances of books’ survival; third, the reverence for holy books, which led to the establishment of scriptoria in monasteries and the encouragement for clergy to be able to read.
It was in one such sheltered spot, possibly in the abbey of St Paul in the Lavanttal in southern Austria or at Reichenau on Lake Constance, that a ninth century scribe wrote some verses in Old Irish into a miscellany he was compiling, now known as the Reichenau Primer, which likened his patient intellectual work to the hunting of his white cat, Pangur Bán (this version is by W.H. Auden):
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.
The emergence of the universities – Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), Salamanca (1218), Padua (1222 or earlier) – increased demand for books and introduced profit and an early form of the market into the book trade: universities organized pecia systems, whereby stationers would provide students with copied out parts of set texts at an agreed rate. The introduction of printing with movable type was to expand a good deal further the possibility of making money from dealing in books. To have been in possession of one or more presses in a city which had a university or was an important ecclesiastical centre – to have been able to run off at low additional cost unlimited copies of a text for which there was an assured demand – must have seemed a bit like having a licence to print money.
The world’s oldest extant book printed with movable type is believed to be Jikji, a Korean artefact dating from 1377, but though there had been various experiments with this technology over hundreds of years in the Chinese cultural sphere, it did not really catch on, a major obstacle being the enormous character set. The European “invention” of printing with movable type has been traditionally ascribed to Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, though there may have been other contemporary players of almost equal importance. From Mainz, printing spread rapidly through the German-speaking world, to Cologne, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Bamberg and Basel, and then on to France, the Low Countries and Italy.
By the last decade of the fifteenth century Venice had become the preeminent centre of world publishing, issuing vast numbers of liturgical works, Greek and Latin classics, Jewish religious texts, sheet music, chiefly for religious use, maps, atlases and scientific books and employing Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Arab, Hebrew and Glagolitic (early Slavic) alphabets. In 1486, the Venetian authorities created the privilege of copyright so that the investment of printers could be protected. The city’s bankers were willing to lend to support enterprise; paper came from near Lake Garda, also in Venetian territory. Venice’s most distinguished printer was the scholar Aldus Manutius, who published classical works in editions where the text was correct and the type fonts rivalled for beauty the handwriting of the original. Aldus’s studios also attracted scholars, so that the printing shop almost became an academy, in which learned men were employed and others were constantly passing through (the lingua franca was often Greek, many of the scholars being exiles from Byzantium/Constantinople, recently fallen into Turkish hands). Venice was a commercial city, however, and printing was a business as much as a vocation for Aldus and his peers. People might like to come in and chat, but work had to be done. Aldus put up a notice on the door of his studio: “Whoever you are, Aldus earnestly begs you to state your business in the fewest possible words and begone, unless, like Hercules to weary Atlas, you would lend a helping hand. There will always be enough work for you and all who come this way.”
The extension of previously existing mechanisms for censorship to cover printed books was not long in coming (though Venice was more adept than most at evading clerical authority). In 1486 the electorate of Mainz and the nearby imperial city of Frankfurt jointly set up the first secular censorship office. From the end of the fifteenth century Frankfurt had been the centre of the German book trade but its business was to be gradually undermined by clerical censorship and its famous book fair, by the eighteenth century, was eclipsed by that of Leipzig. The Protestant Reformation came as a great boon to printers – more sects, more texts – and now also more readers, as books were increasingly published in the vernacular and purchased by the growing number of intellectual members of the artisan and merchant classes. Certain territories where censorship was very light were also to benefit commercially. As S.H. Steinberg has observed:
The merchant aristocracy of the Dutch towns, broad-minded and far-sighted, offered a haven of refuge to the persecuted Jews of Spain and Portugal, the Huguenots of France, the Calvinists of Germany, and the Socinians of Poland. The conflux of skilled craftsmen and versatile business men secured the economic predominance of the Netherlands, while the liberality of her universities and the freedom accorded to the printing press made her the centre of learning and journalism in seventeenth-century Europe. Dutch publishers, above all the printing dynasty of the Elzevirs, issued books in Latin, French, English, German, and Dutch, and thus reflected the fact that Holland was in truth the focus of European literacy.
Many of the great works of the French Enlightenment were published either outside the country or under a false imprint to disguise their actual point of origin. Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes was printed in Holland; his Esprit des Lois in Geneva. Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloise and Du Contrat social in Amsterdam, his Émile at The Hague.
The historian Rolf Engelsing has argued, based on his research in northern and central Germany, for the occurrence in the eighteenth century of what he calls a reading revolution, a process which saw the replacement of an intensive and repetitive perusal of a small number of books – perhaps primarily religious books, which may often have been read aloud to the family – by a more extensive practice of reading, secular, individual and private, and in quest of novelty, information or distraction. As we have seen, this new “mania for reading” was not always welcomed, but opposition to it – or scepticism about it – did not always come just from the usual suspects. As the American book historian Robert Darnton has shown in his study of the correspondence of the French Protestant book buyer Jean Ranson of La Rochelle (an “ordinary” reader, in Darnton’s view), Jean-Jacques Rousseau offered his followers, of whom Ranson was one, an alternative view of how to read. It was alleged that people of society (gens de société) valued books and the ideas they might contain merely as amusing novelties, to be processed as quickly as possible before moving on to others (“Have you read X? Have you read Y? Oh, you must, you must!” Plus ça change…). But Rousseau offered, particularly in his public defence of his novel La Nouvelle Héloise, a model of reading which involved a communion between two idealized solitary entities – the writer and the reader: “When one lives quietly, since one is not in a rush to read in order to show off what one has read, one opts less for variety and more for deliberation; and since one’s reading is not constantly seeking an echo from elsewhere it has the much greater effect on oneself.” And so, in 1781, we see the very Rousseauist Jean Ranson writing to his Swiss bookseller correspondent Samuel-Frédéric Ostervald, asking him to send him fewer periodicals since they rob him of the time he should be devoting to “good reading”: “far from increasing the number of these I have in my house I am doing my best to reduce them”. (In a separate essay Darnton, following the historian Kevin Sharpe, poses another interesting binary opposition to add to that of intensive/extensive: early modern readers, he writes, read “segmentally, by concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book, rather than sequentially, as readers did a century later, when the rise of the novel encouraged the habit of perusing books from cover to cover”.)
By the late eighteenth century, book production had come a long way from the monastic and clerical manuscript culture and the heavy volumes which were to be found in ecclesiastical libraries. There was a growing popular market and books were smaller, more elegant and more mobile. This was knowledge you could take with you. Inevitably a note of complacency, even self-congratulation, began to creep in. The German novelist Jean-Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) wrote:
Heavens! When you remember those ancient folio volumes that weighed several pounds, bound in wood or leather, fastened with brass clasps and locks in the same way that your grandfather’s chair had its leather held in place by brass nails – the very image of the sedentary life of the scholar; and when one holds in one’s hands instead a little pocket book one can count oneself happy. Pigskin has given way to morocco leather, brass studs to gold-embroidered borders, clasps and locks to a soft silk slipcase and the chain with which one used to secure these monsters in the libraries to a little silken ribbon.
Bookselling in a society where there was heavy censorship of domestic production, or punitive taxation of imported books, was not always an easy trade. Its practitioners – the successful ones at least –might consequently be required to be quite tough in their business practices. Montpellier in southern France in the mid-eighteenth century was good bookselling territory, an administrative centre whose university had a famous medical faculty, an academy of science, twelve Masonic lodges, sixteen monastic communities and a large population of lawyers and government officials. It also, according to a trade almanac of 1777, had nine booksellers, though when two of them, Isaac-Pierre Rigaud and Albert Pons, merged they easily dominated the local trade. Rigaud, a record of whose dealings with the major supplier the Société typographique de Neuchâtel survive in the company’s archives, was a cautious businessman. Unlike others who were inclined to risk a large order when they smelled a bestseller he rarely ordered more than half a dozen copies of a single work at a time, preferring to reorder later on as necessary. Typically he would order about ten titles at a time and bring up the weight of his consignment to just under the point when it would incur a higher freight charge. He also hedged his bets between competing suppliers and complained bitterly when he thought one of them had let him down. Occasionally there was the opportunity to play rough against rivals. Robert Darnton writes:
When Cézary, one of the middling dealers, failed to meet some of his payments in 1781, Rigaud drove him out of business by organising a cabal of his creditors. They refused to let him reschedule the payments, had him thrown in prison for debt, and forced him to sell off his stock at an auction, where they kept down the prices and gobbled up the books. By dispensing patronage, Rigaud controlled most of Montpellier’s binderies; and by exerting pressure on the binders, he produced delays and snags in the affairs of other booksellers. In 1789, only one of them remained, Abraham Fontanel, and he stayed solvent only by maintaining a cabinet littéraire [a reading club], “which provokes terrible fits of jealousy by the sieur Rigaud, who wants to be the only one left and who shows his hatred of me every day”, as Fontanel confided to the STN.
Educational reform, leading to significant advances in mass literacy, was to arrive in the nineteenth century, but the well-intentioned efforts of the authorities sometimes came up against significant practical obstacles. In Britain there were successive education acts, in 1870, 1876 and 1880, but factory owners, farmers and rural gentry still wanted to benefit from child labour. And what, after all, was the point of educating the poor? A Suffolk agricultural labourer, speaking of his childhood just before World War I, told Ronald Blythe (in Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village):
The parson was very respected. He could do what he liked with us when he felt like it. One day he came to our house, and told my eldest sister, who was eleven, to leave school. “I think you needn’t finish”, he said. “You can go and be maid to old Mrs Barney Wickes, now she has lost her husband.”
Nevertheless, schooling and literacy did progress and a greater variety of literature emerged to meet, and exploit, the new market. Until the late Victorian era, first editions of a novel normally cost a guinea and a half, about three weeks’ wages for an artisan. At three shillings and sixpence, series like Routledge’s Railway Library, known as yellowbacks, were more affordable, but the real mass demand was for the sensational stories known as penny dreadfuls or penny bloods, or in the United States “dime novels”. There had, of course, always been cheap publishing for a popular market, the Bibliothèque bleue and its imitators in France, chapbooks in England and Ireland, sold by colporteurs, pedlars or “chapmen” and featuring ballads, folk tales, books of astrology or prophecy, practical works, religious tracts. Accounts of the activities of highwaymen and rapparees, featuring “Eulogiums on murder, robbery and theft”, were read with great relish in the hedge schools of Ireland. It is scarcely surprising that a dispossessed people should enjoy the well-told adventures of an outlaw who relieved the gentry of their valuables, but as Niall Ó Ciosáin has shown, the appeal of such stories was sometimes more sociologically broad: the list of the purchasers by subscription of the first edition of the autobiographical outlaw narrative the Life and Adventures of James Freney, commonly called Captain Freney, published in 1754, included the provost of Trinity College Dublin. The production of inexpensive literature to be sold by pedlars or at markets to a popular readership is only a memory now in Europe, but “street literature” of a similar kind, as Cave and Ayad illustrate, still thrives in contemporary Nigeria and Brazil.
Three-volume novels, the normal form of fiction publishing, were too expensive for most people to buy in early Victorian England, but they could be obtained from subscription libraries, whose large pre-publication orders were also very welcome to publishers. In the 1830s, the publishers Chapman & Hall, together with their young author Charles Dickens, made a publishing breakthrough when they issued The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in nineteen fortnightly parts (the last being a double issue), each one enclosed in paper wrappers carrying advertising. Serial publishing of fiction was to be astoundingly successful in the nineteenth century: the story of how in 1841 frantic readers stormed the wharf in the New York docks where the final instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop, revealing the fate of Little Nell, was due to arrive is well known. In France, both Balzac and Zola were happy to have their novels published in serial form by newspapers. Later in the century, the enterprising publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, through serial and later book publication, made Jules Verne a household name, as Verne made Hetzel a wealthy man.
Publishers’ efforts to broaden the market for books by keeping retail prices low were to continue in the twentieth century. But perhaps the most spectacular success was one which combined considerable commercial astuteness with an idealism which was far from uncommon during the mid-century period but which later observers might tend to dismiss as impractical high-mindedness or, worse, paternalism. For sixpence, “the price of a packet of cigarettes”, Allen Lane in 1935 launched a series of paperback books that, in his own words, aspired to “have a viewpoint, that are intelligent but always a good read, from authors that are the very best in their field [… b]ooks that grab the headlines and get people talking”. Lane wanted a “dignified but flippant” symbol to brand the new imprint and having accepted his secretary, Joan Coles’s, suggestion of what this might be, he despatched a young man from the production department to London Zoo to sketch the creature. In the following year George Orwell remarked: “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.” Orwell later expressed amazement at the apparently high sales of the serious, non-fiction Pelicans, “most of which would have been regarded by the general public as impossibly highbrow a few years back”. The response from other publishers to Penguin’s hugely successful innovation did come, but strangely it took almost fifty years.
In the intervening decades, Penguin and its associated imprints – Pelican, Puffin, Peregrine, Penguin Classics, Penguin English Library, Penguin Modern Classics etc. – dominated British publishing, becoming the backbone of the culture of the partially self-educated new middle classes. Richard Hoggart, whose own groundbreaking The Uses of Literacy had been published by Pelican in 1958, was scarcely exaggerating when he wrote, in 1970: “When you look at the whole Penguin achievement you know that it constitutes, in action, one of the more democratic successes of our recent social history.”
The middle decades of the twentieth century were also a time when the paperback book was at its optimum size for comfortable reading (the size of the hand). This was not to last. As early as 1967, though unit sales had risen from seventeen million to twenty-six million over the previous six years, The Times thundered ominously: “Penguin remain a unique service to humanity but in the tough world of the 1960s they must come down to earth and make their products attractive in the marketplace.” In the 1970s the company began to face increasing competition from other quality paperback imprints like Picador, Paladin, Quartet, Flamingo and Virago. Its new chief executive (from 1978), Peter Mayer, had a background in American publishing and he discerned a need for Penguin to publish and energetically promote “new and exciting works”. “What was different about my approach was the way books were presented, priced and marketed. Larger and more varied formats were introduced for the paperback book. Some books could be aggressively packaged, priced higher and given more targeted marketing.” One of the early products of this new publishing philosophy was M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. Old school designers were not always happy. Mike Dempsey, who had been art director with Fontana, wrote: “Many paperback houses have put pressure on their art departments to produce so-called selling covers, dripping with gold-blocking, resulting in a marked drop in design standards, but they still end up on the remainder shelf looking like old tarts.” In 1991, under Mayer’s successor, Trevor Glover, Pelican was abolished as a separate imprint on the grounds that it was perceived by the public to be too highbrow. Changed times. (The imprint was reinstated earlier this year.)
In spite of its title, A History of The Book in 100 Books is not quite a history of the book in the conventional sense in that it does not seek to systematically address the links between all of the players involved in book history: authors (whether single or in collaboration, open or pseudonymous), publishers, printers, shippers, booksellers, readers and reviewers. What it does it does excellently, but it is perhaps more in the nature of an exhibition on or museum of the book (or other information carrier) than a history of its material conditions or cultural role. Thus it ranges widely, making frequent short stops: chronologically, it takes us from cave painting to e-readers, and covers the products of Far Eastern, Islamic and Judaic as well as classical and Western cultures, scientific books and maps, manuscripts, early printed books, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, bibles, children’s books, pornography, guidebooks, cookbooks, braille books, samizdat books, artists’ and paper engineers’ books. And the whole ensemble is splendidly illustrated.
So if the time has come to publish a museum of the book does that suggest that we are dealing with a phenomenon that is dead or dying? Cave and Ayad borrow the word “chronocentricity” (coined by journalist Tom Standage) to describe the sometimes mistaken belief that the age one happens to be living in is on the cusp of enormous change and they conclude, after outlining many of the obvious flaws of digitized books, that the publication of traditional printed books is likely to continue to flourish. “Undoubtedly,” they write, “e-publication is to last (but not perhaps in its current hamburger-like style), and by the end of the 21st century, electronic publishing will perhaps be creating books as good as have been produced in the last few thousand years.”
One would like to be as cheerful as this about the future of the printed book, or even the book, but the analogy with newspapers, which each year continue to record further steep declines in sales, leading to the extinction of many venerable titles, does not give us great reason for optimism. True, the analogy is not a complete or perfect one, but it does still provide us with the example of a communication technology which a generation ago we were inclined to think would last forever and which we now think will last for – well, five or six years would be good.
The threat to printed books would seem to come from a number of quarters: first, from the arrival of a new and supposedly superior technology which is cheaper, more convenient and less cumbersome; second, from far-reaching changes in the distribution network which are placing traditional sellers of books in increasing difficulty; third, from major developments in the overall patterns of consumption of knowledge, information, culture and entertainment. These factors cannot be considered in isolation, since they all feed into each other.
First, the arrival of the e-reader and the e-book. Shipments of e-readers rose steeply from one million units worldwide in 2008 to twenty-three million in 2011; since then they have declined steadily in each year, a decline that is projected to continue (source: statista). This could well be due to the market approaching saturation: in 2010, only five per cent of Americans owned an e-reader; today the figure is thirty-two per cent. Reliable figures on sales of e-books are difficult to come by, but from 2011 to 2012 the percentage of people reading books online in the United States jumped from sixteen to twenty-three. Total US book sales in 2013 amounted to almost fifteen billion dollars, a fourteen per cent increase over five years. But without the contribution of e-books there would have been an eight per cent decline (source: Vox, 27 June 2014).
The arrival of a new technology does not necessarily mean the immediate departure of the old (to which it is reckoned to be superior). One of the most beautiful manuscripts in the history of European book production – though perhaps, as Calvino might say, a book made for purposes other than reading – was the edition of the Roman de la Rose made in Bruges around 1500 by the Burgundian artist known as “the Master of the Prayer Books”, that is fifty years after Gutenberg. As to whether the e-book is a superior technology, this must remain a matter of opinion. Much was made on its first appearance of its supposed virtues of relative lightness: you can pack twelve or twenty novels with you going on holiday (but do you really want to?) and the possibility of instant purchase gratification (a habit which could be bad for your wealth). Some persist in the belief that the codex, that is the book whose pages we turn, has yet to be surpassed as a technology or as an aesthetic object, particularly when it is well made, like an old Penguin or Pelican or the standard French livre de poche of today, fitting snugly in one’s hand or in a jacket pocket, pleasantly bendable, smelling perhaps a little of paper and ink and glue and with a spine which does not crack.
But the aesthetic appeal of the book alone will not safeguard its future if too many other factors are stacked against it. Since the stationer/booksellers of Bologna and Padua copied out their peciae to sell to students in the thirteenth century the book trade has been both largely motivated by and underwritten by commerce, which is to say that if the commercial basis which props it up ceases to exist, it will cease to exist, at least in its current form. As most people know, there has been a fairly stark development in the retail book trade over the last decade or two, more pronounced (or earlier) in the United States as these things generally are. In brief, what has happened is that first the chain bookstores came for the independents, then Amazon came for the chain bookstores. Closures of bookshops of all kinds have followed as for example city centre shops find they cannot compete with Amazon (which is to say their customers desert them) either on the price they can buy (and therefore sell) their stock for or on the rentals they must pay for premises. It could be argued that in the long term none of this will matter very much: we can still buy books and (for the moment) cheaply too. But if bookshops disappear completely we will no longer be able to see before we buy; we will no longer “browse”; we will no longer have easy access to ten thousand or one hundred thousand books in one place and a staff which knows what they are. It might also be speculated that Amazon, given its recent troubling tendency to bully publishers and dictate the terms of trade, may not feel bound (duty to its shareholders and all that) to keep book prices low forever once the competition has been seen off. And how long then will the book last, or what, somewhat less accessible, form will it take?
The third factor which may impinge on the future of the book is the rapid pace of change in the overall pattern of consumption of culture and the increasing obtrusion of a partially self-operated technology into that consumption. Anyone who has been around for a few generations, or who has an interest in the experience of previous generations, will have noticed quite significant changes in how people consume culture and how they talk about it. Frequently a person born in Ireland in the 1930s or 1940s will address the subject of books first by talking about censorship: what we wanted to read, what we’d heard about but could not get, or could get by devious or roundabout means. For the next generation, perhaps a common experience may have been the discovery of the world, through American Jewish fiction of the mid-century period or French or Italian cinema. It is my impression – and of course it’s only an impression – in meeting many people born in the 1970s and 80s, and in particular men, that books do not particularly paddle their canoe at all. This is not to say that they never read, but the book is less central in their world as a source of value than is film, or comedy/humour, or well-crafted (usually American) television fiction (newspapers tend to do nothing for them either). For generations younger still, technology seems to loom ever larger. We do not consume films or music in the same way as we did two years ago and it is a fair bet that we will not be consuming them in the same way two years hence. In this tech-guided cultural vista there is a great premium on being savvy, being adaptable, being fast (not to mention being affluent enough to keep buying). It would be very surprising if there was not a resultant valuing of, or at the least interest in, the mechanism/s above the message. In this world the codex would seem to have little to offer: how many things can you actually do with Pride and Prejudice apart from read it? Can you see the lush green of the gardens of Pemberley, the red of the soldiers’ coats? Can we make Kitty cough and Mrs Bennet squawk? The sad answer is that someone in Seattle is probably already working hard to ensure that we can.
The world of books and publishing can sometimes be an annoying one, and it is not anywhere nearly as high-minded as it would like you to think it is. It runs on speculation, hype and novelty (often to formula). It repeats the same old tired promotional tricks year after year in comfy cahoots with its newspaper allies: why, one wonders, should the books you have “most enjoyed” in 2014 have been published in 2014 and not in 1914 or 1814? Why should you feel guilty if you have read none of the Booker shortlist, or indeed any other shortlist? Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the somewhat austere sage of Geneva, had undoubtedly something of value to say about books, reading, fashion and would-be fashionable people.
It is also sadly true that Rousseau was something of a prig. So really, in the end perhaps you shouldn’t worry too much if your bookshelves contain more books that you haven’t read than that you have. There will be time. Retirement is not so far away, or perhaps redundancy. Go out to your local bookshop and get in close with those Books You Haven’t Read, the Books To Read Next Summer and The Books To Fill Out Those Small Gaps That Are Still There On Your Shelves. Don’t come away empty-handed. They may not be there forever.
In addition to Cave and Ayad’s book the author has, for the purposes of this essay, also read “segmentally” – that is dipped into – Histoire de la lecture dans le monde occidental, edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, especially the essays by Reinhold Wittmann on the eighteenth century and Martyn Lyons on the nineteenth; Alberto Manguel’s Una historia de la lectura; Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City; S.H. Steinberg’s Five Hundred Years of Printing; Robert Darnton’s essay on Jean Ranson in Pratique de la lecture, edited by Roger Chartier, and his essays “The Mystery of Reading” and “What is the History of the Book?” in The Case for Books; Antonia McManus’s The Irish Hedge School and Its Books, 1695-1831; Niall Ó Ciosáin’s Print and Popular Culture in Ireland 1750-1850; Bruno Blasselle’s Le Triomphe de l’Édition: L’histoire du livre, vol. II; Fifty Penguin Years (exhibition catalogue); Phil Baines’ Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005; and L’apparition du livre, by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin.
Published 10 December 2014
Original in English
First published by Dublin Review of Books, 1 December 2014; Eurozine
Contributed by Dublin Review of Books © Enda O'Doherty / Dublin Review of Books / EurozinePDF/PRINT
When political points can be scored by tearing up children’s books that are deemed too tolerant, what is a writer to do? Should they become an activist?
‘Sodobnost’ queries where we are going: which direction has Slovenian literature taken since the pandemic; where might it be heading; and, which path are Slovenians taking, especially those living abroad.