“I don’t suppose anyone will ever ask to paint my portrait, but if they do I certainly plan to take a book along to the sittings. I’ll choose a cracking detective story to pass the time, and then get the artist to paint ‘Homer’ or ‘Milton’ on the front cover afterwards.”
The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words, by Tom Mole, is an extended essay exploring our relationship with books as objects. The author posits that a reader’s books, at least the ones they choose to hold on to and put on their shelves where guests may view them, tell us exactly who they think they are. For the reader themselves he suggests that books serve as aide memoirs for life as it passes.
“Books on the shelves are sandbags stacked against the floodwaters of forgetting”
Divided into eight main chapters plus a coda, a variety of topics are explored including: the book as a thing and the development of associated accoutrements; the history and development of the book in the form we know it today; the part books play in personal lives and how they are more widely valued as a national cultural treasure; technological changes and how this has affected ownership and reading habits; prospects for the future of the book as society changes. Between each pair of chapters are interludes in which the author studies a work of art that includes images of books, and discusses their potential meaning.
Books connect people, enhancing relationships with shared discussion and interest. A Kindle may offer the same words but a physical copy enables others to observe what is being read and to then share their thoughts on the text, thereby bringing people together. Of course, readers do not always wish to be disturbed while reading. From wing backed chairs that provided a degree of privacy in shared space to noise cancelling headphones for busy commuters, accoutrements have been purchased in addition to books.
With the advent of railway travel people pondered how to avoid wasting their time during journeys. Reading was considered a beneficial activity and WH Smith began to sell books from kiosks in train stations. Developing technology enabled not just wider travel but cheaper reading material.
I found the chapter on bookshop and library classification fascinating, influenced as it is by society’s moral and value judgements. I was reminded of contemporary debates over the perceived disparagement of genre fiction, misogyny and literary elitism.
Throughout the medium’s existence, certain books have been valued, carefully held within national libraries and archives which reflect a country’s cultural pride. Book burning is discussed along with the targeting of national libraries by insurgents in times of war.
“The battle against books is a battle against history, against learning, against culture, against openness to others. The fact that our books stand in so readily for our identities, our aspirations and our heritage makes them targets. […] Destroying books is a deliberate strategy for attacking the identity of a culture and denying its right to exist.”
Moving on, the author accepts the benefits of e-readers but points out several aspects of the form that could prove problematic over time.
“Books produced on paper or parchment are, for the most part, superbly durable. […] By comparison, we have trouble recovering digital files stored only a few decades ago in superseded formats on obsolete hardware.”
“Like all modern consumer electronics, e-readers have built-in obsolescence.”
There are interesting thoughts on the personal and environmental footprint of digital technology: the provenance of materials used in manufacturing; working conditions in factories that produce the devices; the challenges of disposal when improved versions are created. The central data storage facilities where digital copies of books are held must also be run and maintained yet do not provide the aesthetic pleasure of a library.
E-books are not owned; what is purchased is a license to read the words. Thus books cannot be passed on or shared. There are no shelves for others to browse, no books to bequeath to friends or children. Valued heritage is not digital.
Sales figures show that books considered disposable are often purchased in higher numbers on e-book. Titles that a reader will hold on to, perhaps hoping to reread, sell better in physical copy. There has been a recent trend to make these books more beautiful. They stay in hardback for longer. Paperback copies may be produced with French flaps. Bearing this in mind, the copy of this book I was sent is therefore an object to be treasured.
As well as the beautiful cover, I love these endpapers
Electronic devices tend to be multi-purpose with the inevitable distractions this brings. A physical book offers a chance to switch off – an escape. In the future, with the growth of the gig economy, such action may be possible only for the privileged.
The author muses on his own shelves and how he has invested in a family home furnished with books. He notes the transience of a life and how he knows he must one day give his books away, passing them into the collections of other readers.
The writing took a little while to capture my attention but once engaged provided some beautifully expressed insights into why readers become so invested in the books they desire and give space to. The author is articulate and interesting, offering intriguing nuggets for consideration. This is a book I will happily add to my shelves, and recommend to all fellow bibliophiles.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.