Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Books versus screens

Recently I reassembled the library after completely redecorating and carpeting that room. There is now a substantial piano and a guitar, some well-loved paintings, a table and chairs, a ‘whatnot’ showing off shiny things, a carpet and an old but fine rug.

But what first hits the eye when you enter the room is the books.

If you’re like me, it is always a pleasing sight because your books somehow become you. They represent a lifetime’s collection, a resource. And a shrine. These books have exploded your imagination at times, made you ponder, opened windows in the mind, and substantially influenced your thinking and outlook. Some of them have given you your very language. They are the references and moments that have peopled your life. Like memories they are arranged haphazardly, colourfully. A wall or two of books is a generous monopoly of space: it allows paintings to breathe on other walls but has an aura of its own.

Your eye draws to titles you’ve read and which still beckon to you like easy mistresses: Hardy, Steinbeck, Fowles, Gladwell, Hare, EE Nesbit, Sisman, Susman, Shakespeare, Woolfe, WH Auden, Shakespeare, Browning, Eliot, Thoreau, Gide, Shakespeare, DA Mackenzie (Who? Where did I get this fine 1910-vintage book from, The Myths of China and Japan?).  

Then there’s the smell: an intricate dust carrying insight, memory, nostalgia – and possibility: it’s as universal as the Internet but it’s yours to hand and far more special.

So I’ve not, yet, taken to reading from iPads, Tablets, Kindles and their many cousins. True, it might be compulsive, convenient, even a bit magical; and surely it could have its disciplined place on trains or holidays or on the move. Except I am not disciplined enough to apportion that kind of reading time to its useful place: I only read on my phone when I need to.

And what if we carry on this way for a lifetime, holding this poorly reflecting mirror and its future easy-wrap equivalents? Where does that unbeautiful hard disk go, or where that ephemeral substance of your work and life which represents you, and makes such a decorous picture of your living surfaces? It becomes like the patient etherised upon a table.

Having thirty years of RAM storage as a writer is already enough to frighten me into a separate collection of six or more old computers – mostly in the attic, mostly with the ability to restart and even to print out former work. That hording instinct is a professional as much as personal requirement, though only once have I been asked to update a twenty-year-old publication for a client.

So a portable electronic library, easily tossed into another pile or sloshed mistakenly in the washing machine, is low on the priorities. I have enough desktops, plus a decent laptop and masses on them that help me daily but which are prey to a massive power cut. But I will have books and some papers of my own that I keep and which I can return to, on foot, at any time.

I wonder. Might I return to this in a year or five, and have to update it, saying “I’m a convert to electronic reading, and I’m hooked”? If I do, I’ll bet it will just be one more gradual step in techno easy (lazy/convenient/duping/soul-destroying?) living, a kind of irrelevance, a bodiless thing. And I’ll know my library is still there and welcoming.

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