Vulpes Libris

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.

Last Writes

By Alan Cleaver.

Loan MS 74, f.11

A page from St Cuthbert’s Gospel which dates from the late 7th century. Picture courtesy of the British Library.

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 ( 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.


Lesley Park browses the library at Boot Mill, Eskdale, Cumbria. (Picture by Alan Cleaver)

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!


Last Writes – A Requiem for the Printed Word runs from April 8th to April 30th 2013 at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont (see for opening times).


12 comments on “Last Writes

  1. Annaliz
    January 29, 2013

    They said that painting was dead when the camera was invented. I think the written word will live on, as we humans have a need to express ourselves, although the form, function and context of writing may change. Like us, our communication forms evolve accordingly, but the old skills are eventually prized when they appear to be nearly lost, and like a Grail Quest they will be hunted down again.

    A thought provoking article though…

  2. Rosyb
    January 29, 2013

    Enjoyed this! Not sure I agree with all it says though.

    “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.”

    Not only do I have masses of documents over 5 years old on my laptop (because I’m as messy in digital form as I am in paper form) but things are copied to an extent and in a permanence none of our realise, or expect with the internet backing up information, emails and all sorts of trash all over the shop. In fact, the problem is, in many ways, that people can’t get rid of anything anymore – it is hard to have private letters – it will be backed up somewhere deep in the depths of your harddrive. Personal lives are thrown all over the internet and when people think better there is no way of retrieving it all again. No more can an ex’s written words be dumped in a pile and set alight to disappear forever.

    There is a glut of the written word. A glut of texting and emailing and communication. I’m sure many more people write now it is shorter and more instant than used to sweat over the traditional once a year thank you letters of old. Good letter writers are lovely – but are always rare. We keep the ones that are good because they stood out. We bin the ones that went “And I went to the shops and we bought a cd and our holiday this year…blah blah blah.”

    Books have moved from being one-off expensive elite objects made by artists and scribes to printed – opening that out to a wider set of people but still not that wide, to mass market paperbacks, opening books out even wider – to digital. In a way it’s a natural progression. Whilst I would agree that the incredible art objects of the past are completely special (the collection of illuminated manuscripts and books in Dublin is really something else), I wouldn’t necessarily get quite so mournful over the latest enormous doorstop of an airport book – expensive, enormous, cumbersome with a pair of legs on the front (if for a woman) or some smirking male celebrity with a car (if a bloke). We can get a little too romantic about these things surely?

    Think of Shakespeare, after all. Those are texts that have survived. BUt partially through tradition. What do we actually have physically? Various contradictory versions – quartos and folios. Hamlet always has to be cut or else it would be over 5 hours long. Decisions have to be made as to which version, which cuts, which inconsistencies should be ironed out and how. It is partly the tradition, the fact the words are alive and the versions all fight each other that gives endless opportunities. Treating something too much in stone can kill it for a new era.

    Digital books are for a new era too. I watch kids and how fast they are with technology and at using the endless range of devices and touch screens and keypads. What you carry through your childhood will surely always have that familiarity to you. I think that the printed word will survive. But it’s also important to remember a lot of what has written will not. And that’s always been the case. And at least there won’t be the millions of books stuck in landfill – which is a thought that saddens me at least.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

  3. Alex in Leeds
    January 29, 2013

    I rather like the idea of subscription libraries, quirky and independent and with a sense of personality, coming back into the mix and offering an alternative to short-sighted rooms-with-books from city councils. Pay-to-play though does seem a step backwards.

  4. sshaver
    January 29, 2013

    I had never heard the story of the Cuthbert book before. Thank you.

    And as a writer, all I can say is that I want to be in print, not in pixels.

  5. Michael Carley
    January 29, 2013

    With regard to libraries and books, they have grown up together. The history of the bookshelf is well worth reading:

  6. Ela
    January 29, 2013

    I think the death of printed books will be a long time coming, since many people still enjoy the feel and convenience of a physical thing. That said, printed books are vulnerable in a way that electronic books aren’t – to the ravages of time, to accident or design. Yes, we have extraordinary works of art from the past to celebrate, but we have also lost plays by Sophocles and other classical works through fragility and fire. I don’t think physical books should be fetishised, even though my physical library is more appealing when I just want to sit down and read a book, compared to my digital library – though my digital library is a good deal more portable!

  7. Geoffrey Gudgion
    January 29, 2013

    Excellent post. Not only is there more pleasure in reading a physical book, but the act of writing with a pen feels more creative, more substantial, than tapping at a keyboard.

    …er, like I’m doing now.

    Good luck with the exhibition.

  8. Rosyb
    January 30, 2013

    Having just been watching the series that is presently on BBC Four about illuminated manuscripts I was struck by something else – the presenter was given “unrivalled acess” and able to actually look through some real treasures in the British Library – totally inaccessible to the rest of us. Even those famous books and manuscripts on display in other places like The Book of Kells – can only be shown a page at a time. Whilst the presenter was talking she was flicking through on her pad thingummy and showing images of the manuscripts. As a person who is interested in painting – I was incredibly impressed with the reproductive quality and close detail that can now be seen using digital that is now available to all of us on the internet. Sometimes you can see the brushstrokes in more detail than faced with the picture itself, behind glazing or hung at the wrong height, obscured by reflections of gallery lighting – or behind a rope so you can’t get close enough to see properly. Have fun!

    So, I think there is so much potential for the printed and the digital to add and enhance each other, rather than just being seen as enemies.

  9. Alan Cleaver
    January 30, 2013

    Thank you all for your comments. It goes without saying you’re all welcome to come and visit the exhibition in April. I’ll ask Vulpes Libris to jog your memories nearer the time!

  10. Sharonrob
    January 31, 2013

    Thank you for an interesting, thought-provoking post Alan. I love physical books, but a problem with the tendons in my neck and arms means that the pleasure I get from reading is no longer inextricably bound up with them. I recently read a new book by an Icelandic writer whose work I really like and although I thought it was her best yet, my enjoyment was undercut by the large format paperback. It was uncomfortable, unwieldy and gave me pins and needles and it was far too big for my shoulder bag. I’d love to believe that paper and ink are inseparable from pleasure, but I can no longer say that. However, I’m also reading Letters Between Six Sisters (830 pages in paperback) on my Kindle with no let or hindrance and enjoying it all the more because I can read it wherever I like.

    Having said that, I have stacks of physical books, so I don’t see myself giving them up in the foreseeable future. Some forms just aren’t suited to the e-book format or if they are, the Kindle itself won’t do; you need the app on a tablet. Graphic novels spring to mind here. Also, although permanence is part of the printed book’s appeal, so is its disposability. We can pass paperback novels on to friends, family, charity shops and even complete strangers without a second thought; you can’t do that with an e-book. Too many of us enjoy sharing books with other people to allow that to die out. Printed books are easily available, nice to look at and democratic – assuming your local library has kept its funding, but that’s a whole other thread.

  11. Pingback: Walking the lonely path – Lonnings exhibition at the Florence Arts Centre | kenthinksaloud

  12. Pingback: Alt-pub on Vulpes Libris – a round-up. | Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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