Friday, 21 October 2011

Of books and progress

For a number of days I have been pondering something as I have travelled on the train. It started as an observation of the two men sat opposite me, one late middle aged with an iPad, the second a young guy with an open pocket bible (we live in what is known as the Bible Belt of our city). They were surrounded by people who, without exception, were playing with Kindles, mobile phone applications or iPods.
Two things bothered me. Firstly, here was a place where only a few years ago you would have heard the buzz of early morning conversations between passengers, even if it were only the initial “good morning” or “is this seat taken?” kind of conversation. Now, everyone was pre-occupied with “social media” whilst being anti-social with the living being sat next to them.
Second, the Kindle. Just in case you have been living in the jungle for the last 30 years, this is an electronic tablet that you can download entire libraries of books onto. It is cheaper than buying the somewhat antiquated type of literature that involves paper, a bookmark and the ability to turn pages.
As anyone who has ever owned a computer knows, technology changes so fast, it is difficult and expensive to keep up. If you have data stored on a floppy disk these days, you would need an equally “antiquated” computer of say 1995 vintage to extract the data. The most recent model to incorporate a floppy disk drive is probably 2001.
So, say you bought a Kindle, and decided to download ALL of your books onto it. What happens in 15 years time when the technology is obsolete? What happens when your two year old drops it in the bath? How do you pass on the joy of pictures and the smell of a new book, or the magic of the illustrations in a children’s alphabet primer?
What of precious discoveries of papyrus scrolls in the desert, or Genizas where worn and broken holy books were stored and rediscovered centuries later? Or libraries that stretch back half a millennia. They exist because the learning bound in the Moroccan leather was considered precious to store for future generations. I doubt Johnson’s dictionary or Josephus or the writings of the early church are exactly fighting on the top ten of downloads from Amazon.
So, are we in danger of losing our heritage, each and every culture and language that ever wrote or printed a book? Perhaps we are the last generation to haunt dusty bookshops and trail our fingers over shelves of Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Dante, the last to scuttle home with a precious find, dive onto the sofa, open a packet of digestive biscuits and delve into paper pages of fantasy, mystery and parable.
I’m so glad that my university studies were punctuated by the daily stagger to the library with a satchel of books, and the equally exhausted stagger home to tip my precious quarry onto my desk. A desk piled high; the challenge of a wall of wisdom to scale.
I currently have three piles of books next to my bed. I am thinking that a Kindle would make a great coaster……..


amateur said...

Some of us will always want books around. We shall form a secret society.

Rob Taylor said...

This, perhaps, is your finest essay! I am a "book man" and carry one with me most everywhere I wander. I have even considered retiring so I could read all of the books that I have stacked on shelves and in corners and closets. Thanks for putting some of my thoughts into meaningful phrases.