Obviously, usual disclaimer…this is all me, nothing to do with my boss or any organisations I may belong to. If you want to be grumpy, feel free to be grumpy at me.
And the house chants on without us…
So where were we?
We’ve established that some people don’t view books as valuable because they’re a little difficult to get your head around. To civilians the reasoning behind why one hundred year old book can be verging on priceless and another hovering just this side of worthless can be obscure, seemingly arbitrary and maddeningly opaque. Even when the rationale is explained it often doesn’t help.
Often what the rare book trade does is take an object with a clearly identifiable function and then deny the object the exercise of its function as a result of financial value. One of the things I hear most often is “If I owned that book I’d be afraid to touch it.” I usually respond to this by pointing out that the book in question is four hundred years old, has survived untold wars, plagues and natural disasters in its journey to our hands and is probably a lot tougher than me…not to mention prettier and more useful.
This strikes people as strange.
Couple this with the fact that many book-dealers have this reputation as being the unholy union of a second hand car salesman, Captain Jack Sparrow and a particularly snotty maître d’ and you’re left with a world that is difficult at best to enter even if you know you want to. If your unfulfilled desires don’t intentionally lead you to Chelsea Antiquarian Book Fair, or down into my basement (I mean that to be much less sinister than it sounds…it has books in it) then the chances of you happening upon this world by accident are pretty slim. It does happen, as a result of unwise present shopping or foolish messing about with a fabled antique puzzle box purchased from a souk in Marrakesh, and the people who come to us in this manner generally stay (We have such sights to show you…). Recently however there have been fewer, and this is a source of concern.
The primary concern rattling teacups and knocking over whiskey bottles across all the book multiverse is the threat of encroaching technology.
Far more erudite analyses of our nightmares involving a world of plastic placemats with a bewildering array of buttons can be found elsewhere:
That’s pointing you in the direction of but a few of the various debates, posts and editorials out there.
There’s also this:
Which is quite lovely, although I’m not sure why it has to be presented in the manner of excerpts from Wisconsin Death Trip?
There are clearly a large number of smart people out there worrying about this. I have to admit to not really being one of them; I’m worried about something I consider far more horrifying.
Kindles, Nooks, Kobos etc. are all great ideas. The capacity to carry a thousand books in your pocket is probably some sort of bibliophile utopian ideal.
The ability to read anything that takes your fancy easily and at any time, even when you didn’t know you fancied it or weren’t aware you had the time is a great and wonderful advance in technology and, indeed reading. Couple this with simple human bloody mindedness and there’s a definite future for used, rare, second-hand and antiquarian books. Not the future we previously thought they had before all this tech came along, but a future nevertheless. Vinyl records were supposed to disappear completely with the advent of cds, they haven’t. Horses and canal boats were supposed to disappear from our country with arrival of the railways and cars, they haven’t. There are fewer certainly, and they aren’t the lynchpins of trade or transport any more, but they are still there and still flourishing. Their future changed, it didn’t disappear from the face of time but it became something previously un-anticipated.
It could be that this is our renaissance, a revolution of attitudes and alterations to our basic structure that we get to watch this time. It happened before in the 1450’s (very few members of the ABA were around for that, maybe one or two of the current committee at most); it made a lot of people unhappy and caused a massive ruckus in the publishing and bookselling world. Prior to that the adoption of “codex” format over scrolls caused a lot of academic and professional sneering and you can only imagine the raised eyebrows amongst the makers of bookshelves when people actually possessed enough books to stand them upright rather than have them lying down. That’s just vulgar. In the thirteenth century there were actually other places appearing, threatening to provide education and enlightenment outside of the monasteries! That is not cool! There were probably mummers doing performances of sad Dominicans walking through empty scriptoriums to the sound of mournful gitterns and serpents.
These upstart establishments were called universities and as a result of them we were supposed to get easy access to the tools of enlightenment…that and cheap beer and the possibility of meeting really earnest smug people pointing out that they’re in the top five percent of the population and the future voice of politics/maths/art/literature/business etc. before going on to a fruitful career working in places they’d never considered, wearing clothes they’d always sworn they wouldn’t alongside people they’d always professed to despise. Some of them even dated me, which I can promise is nothing anyone sees themselves doing deliberately.
These universities gave rise to other educational establishments, which in turn gave rise to other reactionary emporiums of knowledge. They all until very recently depended upon books for the transmission of their wisdom. They only had access to a finite number of books, books are pricey (as any of the top five percent will text you about from their iPhones), books take up space and there can’t be one for everyone.
With the advent of modern technology the same book can be distributed to a vast multitude of hungry, eager minds looking to change the face of the universe. We hope.
The thing I fear most is not actually that “real” books will diminish and cease to exist.
I’m very, very, very afraid of this:
I’m not afraid of being unemployed, or seeing the rare books world forced to adapt to a changing world. That’s all stuff that is to a greater or lesser extent supposed to happen. It’s part of the deal of working and getting older, like putting on weight and growing unsightly patches of hair and realising that to your spouse you are frequently a bore and that to the rest of your family you are a conduit of spending money at best and an embarrassment the rest of the time. Or not, mileage may vary.
I’m afraid of young people not being able to escape where they started.
If you don’t read books; you are defenceless. If you don’t read books; it is far easier for you to be made a victim.
People can tell you whatever they please, put you wherever they want, convince you it’s what you deserve or need or is the best course of action. They can manipulate and engineer and abuse their power, be they governments, police forces, doctors, educational establishments, parents, priests, popes and prime ministers. If you don’t read all the books, you have no tools to prevent this.
Books are the first weapon to hand, the easiest and cheapest form of self defense and neighbourhood watch. They are the mental equivalent of a half-brick, a pointed stick or a milk bottle full of petrol with a rag in the top. Anyone can get hold of them, arm themselves and use them to change their situation.
This is a thing I believe all the way through me, like a stick of seaside rock, because it is what I did myself. I wasn’t always right, and it certainly didn’t always turn out for the best, but they were my choices. If it hadn’t been for books feeding the need to learn and take control of who and where I was, then they would not have been my choices.
They would have been choices made for me by someone else.
Just think for a second about the multitude of horrors that could occur as a result of that sentence.
Some of them aren’t really horrors, it’s true.
I hated school, that was someone else’s decision, but aside from breeding a lively hatred of some of my peers and a distaste for anything mentioned on a syllabus under the heading “English Literature”, it didn’t kill me or maim me or blight me. Not more than most anyway. I was very lucky.
I went to university and I can’t pretend to have used it as the opportunity I should have. I used it more as a chance to get really drunk and attempt to sleep with girls in Sisters of Mercy t-shirts whilst occasionally writing truly awful fiction and planning the pose I would adopt for the photograph on the back of my first best-selling novel-that-would-change- people’s- lives. That was a choice I made, perhaps not my smartest.
Without all the books, I would not have had the chance to waste those opportunities, if that makes any sense. I would never have got near the school I hated, and I would never have been given access to the university education I squandered. I would never have known that they were options in my life.
I grew up alongside a lot of people who weren’t aware that they had these options and who, for better or worse (horribly frequently for worse) didn’t get any chances to waste. They lived in the same places as me, they had the same or similar families and communities, they started out doing the same jobs. Their arena of experience did not encompass reading books.
This obviously isn’t me suggesting they were stupid, or lesser beings or anything as moronic as that. It’s an awkward and probably unsuccessful attempt to express the heart-breaking knowledge that many of them didn’t end up with the lives they wanted, and that probably their children didn’t (or won’t) either, partially because they had no tools with which to recognise chances.
Nobody taught them that they shouldn’t allow other people to make decisions for them and theirs. Nobody taught them how to recognise that someone else is making choices without their consent.
They hide that stuff in books.
In fact they were mostly taught that they were actively making choices already. They were informed (by a number of sources) to believe that the only choices they had available were shitty ones. The good choices went to someone else in a place they could never reach. They were told that they should make the best of their situation, that really that out of reach option isn’t something they should be wasting their time with. That for reasons of background, nationality, sexuality, colour, religion, relative financial stability or a whole host of other baseless criteria these things weren’t the things for them, they were the things for someone else. My family got told this, I got told this. That is indicative of the kind of caustic, poisonous shite that you end up with in a society where people aren’t encouraged to read and learn under their own power.
You end up with people making choices for others with no knowledge of their circumstances, their motivations or needs.
You end up with a society led by birds talking to fish about how to swim better.
You end up with a situation where people have no idea that their options for angry, resentful disagreement extend beyond setting fire to Peckham and nicking stuff from Primark. You end up with large numbers of your population hopelessly marginalised and potentially irretrievably relegated to a despised underclass. You end up with an array of dead ends where the only open routes lead to destinations no right minded person would want or tolerate. You end up with jobs that offer less than benefits. You end up with poor health and lifestyles across a vast section of the population. You end up with anger and frustration and huge vistas of bereft people. You end up with the people in charge telling you that it’s the fault of the last people in charge, and the people at the bottom of the pile telling you that from their perspective it doesn’t make any difference who’s in charge because they never make anything better.
This is not a bleak dystopian future, this is last year. This is last year without books. This is last year without reading. Last year without arming people with the ability to self-educate and change their situations in ways that work and don’t necessarily involve mass destruction.
Now tell me what next year looks like. Tell me what the next decade looks like.
Not everyone will take advantage of the ability to change their circumstance. Not everyone will want or believe in the possibility of change or improvement either for themselves or for others.
Everybody however deserves the opportunity to make their own choice. Books are in many cases the physical embodiment of that opportunity.
Here are some quotes from very smart people, hidden in books:
“Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.”
“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.”
“The ever more sophisticated weapons piling up in the arsenals of the wealthiest and the mightiest can kill the illiterate, the ill, the poor and the hungry, but they cannot kill ignorance, illness, poverty or hunger.”
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” G.K. Chesterton.
“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.” Neil Gaiman
“In 900 Years of travelling space and time I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.” The Doctor
Alright, that last quote isn’t strictly speaking from a book, but my week isn’t complete without a Dr. Who quote. It illustrates the important point that, in a manner of speaking, this is how books feel about you.
They don’t care if you are rich or poor, black, white, mixed race, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, gay, straight, undecided, indiscriminate or just plain content. They have no interest in the size or shape of your body, your lack of working limbs, life expectancy, family life, prejudices, bigotry, misconceptions, triumphs or regrets. They will offer up what they contain regardless of whether you are happy, miserable, sick, healthy, ecstatic or desperate.
In the thousands of years that we have been gaining, accumulating, transmitting and sharing our knowledge through them, they have always been there for us. They give what they have unconditionally and without judgement. When the people you trust can no longer be trusted, when the ones you love become your enemies, when the ground underfoot is shaky and the sky above looks dark and forbidding there will always be a book with an answer in it somewhere. Even when a book contains something you reject, when it contains information you despise the very fact of its existence has taught you something. You have the choice to take an opposing stance, to decide on the best course of action for you. The book has given you the tools to make your decisions, to stay or to go, to fight or to run, to change or to remain the same.
The trick is that you have to read them. If you don’t, they can’t help.
September 20th, 2012 at 1:40 pm
Another great piece, enjoyed reading it.
I’ve never really thought of the comparison to the vinyl trade before in any detail, and my hopes are that they’re very different. The vinyl trade has contracted massively, and I would speculate that it’s going to really fizzle out with the next generation. Surely books must be different, massively different.
September 20th, 2012 at 4:14 pm
And people still collect inro and netsuke long after the invention of the pocket left them somewhat utility-challenged…
September 20th, 2012 at 4:33 pm
Comment of the Day!
September 21st, 2012 at 2:25 am
Just discovered your blog and love it.
See you soon,
September 21st, 2012 at 5:17 pm
This is beautifully written and I love everthing about it, particularly your comment, “If you don’t read books; you are defenceless. If you don’t read books; it is far easier for you to be made a victim.” THIS SO MUCH ALL THE TIME FOREVER.
September 22nd, 2012 at 7:44 pm
Some say the pen is mightier than the sword…
September 27th, 2012 at 11:31 am
we can hope!
October 3rd, 2012 at 3:04 pm
“Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them …” – Henry David Thoreau.