The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
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 woolly 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); it serves 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. Libraries, I guess, exemplify the clash of crossover culture that we witness today; they have become relics of yesteryear, undermined by the advances of the modern world. But we forget that the book itself, at its birth, did much to destroy how we had lived before. Woodblock printing and Gutenberg’s early fifteenth century metal printing press stampeded society into a new age, did much to remould our minds and essentially rewired us: memory was reshaped, storytelling took a back seat, mythology was muted by hard copy. Now as we witness the printed form lose ground to its digital counterpart, we can determine tidal distortion in how we use our minds and how we access information. Seemingly this puts the library at peril, and today we see County Councils wishing to rid themselves of their duties, crying intemperately as Henry II had once of Thomas Becket: “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”
But I see little actual evidence that the digital world has arrested the fate of the book. Indeed it appears 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 new less frightening, or seem familiar and comfortable – clay pottery, for instance, that maintains traits of its wooden counterparts from previous generations; or they may be attempts to break down educational or technical differences, or cultural influences – fresh iconography overwriting past belief systems. Promoters of the internet tout unashamedly its aspects of a brave, new world; the world wide web’s original strength and 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. Yet today the internet has dissolved in to something far less impressive, and reading the news, say, on the internet is as linear as reading, say, the Guardian in its print format (although having written that, I assume that nobody in the right mind would wish to read the dippy, liberal Guardian). 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 and aped by its digital rivals, even its golden mean dimensions have been copied. Moreover the eBook incorporates non-visual skeuomorphs – the hinged and page-turning movement of a book, 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, for it is well established that 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 physical memory that a reader can attach to the 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: the archaic stair is far from anachronistic and will survive the threat of obsolescence from the more comfortable lift.
There is far more to it than that. I would posit that most books sold by bookshops in previous decades have remained unread, and that most have been bought to fulfil a need other than their being read. This seemingly wanton waste of our economy offers a big clue about the book’s real purpose. Our personal libraries consist of what we have invested ourselves in, and serve as reflection of who we are and, more importantly, who we wish to be. Books, above all else, are aspirational objects, and are far more than the custodians of what otherwise can be translated into binary code. The books that we cherish and line our houses with will mirror, or have once mirrored, the aspirations of each of us; the ones that we cull will tend to be those in which we see no self-reflection. So many times I hear still that 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. And for sure, one thing designers can’t reproduce in the Kindle is this aspirational sensation that the tactile book offers.
The book’s commercial fall from grace in recent times then, 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 need and attention. The book, of itself, appears to me to be a wonderful and secure piece of technology, finely tuned since Gutenberg’s day. It relies on a power source that is derived from ourselves and not from a battery, 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, often in the same way that hi-fi 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 interference 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 Nineteen Eighty-four, after rights issues dispute embroiled the edition sold. Big Bruv rules OK.
Perhaps it is now that our aspirational yardsticks – that is how we visualize who we wish to be – are to be found elsewhere, even online with our diarrhoeal jottings on Facebook, Twitter or their ilk, carefully self-monitored environments of polished gemstone, honed to reflect the image we hold of ourselves (and only then, I contend, to serve how we wish others to perceive us). It is this migration of aspiration that is the real threat to the book; the book’s apparent frailty as a piece of technology is almost irrelevant. And this threat applies also to all vessels that the book sails in – be they public libraries or bookshops. And it highlights also perhaps our lack of desire to act as aspirational beings today (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 Wi-Fi, 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 again.