A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
By Alan Cleaver.
Are we sleepwalking into a digital future full of ebooks and iPads? And will the printed word so beautifully captured at the moment in books and newspapers become extinct or be reduced to a niche arts and crafts hobby?
I hope not but I thought it worth marking the paradigm-shift our society is currently going through – a mass move away from the real book to the ebook. So, in April, I will be hosting an exhibition at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont, Cumbria (www.florencemine.org) entitled “Last Writes – A Requiem for the Printed Word”.
It is unlikely the printed word will die out any time soon but thinking about its demise has forced me to think about all it has achieved in the last … well, how old is the printed word? Depending how you define printed (or written) it’s anything from 500 years old to over 8,000 years old. The first question is perhaps “Should we be worried about the death of the book?”. No doubt many reading this (digital) article will love holding a real book but – romance aside – should we mourn its passing? My answer is “For God’s sake, yes. Absolutely”. And I’d urge everyone to scream that from the rooftops. And here’s why:
St Cuthbert’s Gospel is the oldest European book. It was buried with St Cuthbert in the late 7th Century. Nearly 500 years later the coffin was opened and the book retrieved. It was still intact. One thousand years later (2013) the book is still in good condition. The text – the gospel of John – can still be read. Its illumination and binding tell us as much about the society which made it as the text tells us about their religious beliefs.
Now, download the Gospel of John onto a Kindle and bury that in your back garden. When it’s dug up in 500 years time what condition will it be in? Will anyone be able to read the text? And what will the design of the Kindle tell 26th century man about our society? Or to put it another way: Find me a document on your laptop that is more than five years old.
My point is this: Digital means transitory. The Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the writings of Plato or the doodlings of a 7th century scribe are with us today because they exist in a nearly-permanent form. If we publish our culture only in digital form we risk losing it within the space of a few years.
The exhibition at Florence will hopefully sound this alarm bell but I also want to look at other aspects of the printed word. The future of libraries for instance. Do they have one? Is the concept outdated or redundant in the digital age? Key to this debate is what a library should ‘do’ in 2013 and what one should look like. I’ll be revealing my nomination for the Best Library in Cumbria during the exhibition but am happy to share it now with readers of Vulpes Libris: it’s the public library in Boot Mill in the Eskdale Valley. Miller Dave King collects the library books being thrown out by Cumbria County Council’s libraries and offers them to families camping in the valley (and as they’re ‘rejected’ books, he’s not too worried what condition they come back in – or even if they don’t come back). It’s a noble idea but it’s the location of the library that attracted my attention. It’s set in the centuries-old mill. It’s often unclear where the ‘mill’ ends and the neighbouring woodland begins. You’re as likely to find a robin or blue tit perched on the shelf as you are a copy of Wuthering Heights. In short, it’s a magical place.
It made me realise that what’s important about a library (but often overlooked) is its location and appearance. Too many school libraries are just minimalist shelves in a corridor whereas they should look like… well, you tell me. But I instinctively feel that if the building is a beautiful and magical place, children will need precious little encouragement to start picking up the books and reading.
There are many more aspects to the Last Writes exhibition but I’ll finish with a mention of handwriting. I, like many reading this, will have a big box under the bed crammed full with letters from long-dead grandparents, lost loves and treasured friends. But how many teenagers today have ever written or received a handwritten letter? Only three States in America now require schools to teach handwriting (preferring instead that keyboarding skills are taught). But before you mutter ‘only in America’, how long will it be before the UK follows their lead? Once again, the question needs to be asked: “Does it matter?”. And my answer is: Gaze upon the pages of the St Cuthbert Gospel and you’ll realise of course it bloody does!