Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Re-Kindling the Love of Literature?

by Bryony Hart

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Nothing beats picking up a book that is over 300 hundred years old and feeling its age radiate from its cover and pages. Sixth Form pupils will know by now that I get very excited about the prospect of holding an aged book, glancing at the small annotations made by some distant reader many years ago and getting an insight into the thoughts of a reader (and writer) who died long before I was even born. 
 
During our numerous visits to Chawton House Women’s Library this year, we have had the rare opportunity to look at a first edition of Aphra Behn’s The Rover (published 1677).  It managed to gain the attention of the entire group as we leaned over the fragile pages - pages that had lived through vast political and social upheaval, horrific world wars, and the modern day preoccupation with all things technical. This book was certainly the result of the printing press at its best.  Equalling this discovery was a 19th century cookery book, full of delightful old recipes that reflected the eating habits of the time (I won’t mention what they used to do with pigs’ trotters) and pictures that would delight any budding chef.  However, far more precious were the little notes, adjustments to recipes, new recipes written on the blank pages at the rear of the book, and the marks of grease and cake mixture that stained the pages.  This, I reflected, is what is so joyous about books. They are interactive, meant for annotating, sharing, spoiling and keeping.
 
Therefore, when the Kindle was launched in November 2007, I was incredibly scathing towards a technology that would obliterate all that I love about books. Real books. Ones that you have to break the spine of to read comfortably in bed.  Ones where you can’t help underlining phrases and inspirational words of wisdom so that borrowers can also take joy in what another reader found interesting.  As a result, I have resisted a technology that would potentially undermine two of the most revolutionary inventions in human history – the printing press and the precious book. 
 
Gutenberg's printing press, 15th century
In the fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg, a stonecutter and goldsmith, devised a clever invention (one that had been long in the making – block printing was well-established in China from the 13th century) that would eventually bring knowledge to the masses.  According to http://www.thehistoryguide.org/, ‘Gutenberg devised an alloy of lead, tin and antinomy that would melt at low temperature, cast well in the die, and be durable in the press. It was then possible to use and reuse the separate pieces of type, as long as the metal in which they were cast did not wear down, simply by arranging them in the desired order. The mirror image of each letter (rather than entire words or phrases) was carved in relief on a small block. Individual letters, easily movable, were put together to form words, words separated by blank spaces formed lines of type, and lines of type were brought together to make up a page. Since letters could be arranged into any format, an infinite variety of texts could be printed by reusing and resetting the type.’  This invention caught on, and in cities all across Europe this cunning contraption was being copied; in fact, by the end of 1500, over 2,500 cities were producing books. So, when we talk about the Information Revolution of the 21st century, we must not forget that it had already happened on a vast scale but over 500 years ago. 
 
With books being printed on such a large scale, libraries were formed, the cost of books diminished, literature and information became more readily available, and, God forbid, women were even getting in on the action by having their own work published (admittedly, they often paid for it to be mass-produced – Jane Austen knew all about this rather unfair way of publishing but, thankfully, her brother gave her a helping hand). When I think about the delights of the humble book, I can not help but think of writers such as Austen, Woolf and Potter … Beatrix Potter. My idol and inspiration. What a remarkable woman she was, bringing fantastic tales and beautiful illustrations into the pudgy little hands of children all over the world – demanding that the books were small, printed in colour and, more importantly, made affordable so that they were more accessible to those on a lower income. 
 
It is hard not to get nostalgic about books. The real ones. The way that they survive the test of time. I have some of my old childhood Beatrix Potter books (with my name scribbled all over the inside page so that my brother and sisters knew it was mine) and I can’t wait for my daughter, Lily Beatrix, to do the same.  However, I now realise that it is impossible to resist developing technology. I see Lily grabbing my phone and deftly swiping its screen to manoeuvre through her A,B,Cs; this technology is the norm for the new generation and I hear myself sounding like my granddad, who said that the computer would never catch on.   
 
So, I did it.  I purchased a Kindle. 
 
And I haven’t looked back since. What an ingenious invention. I opted for the Kindle Touch, despite some rather scathing reviews on Amazon, because I liked the idea of sweeping the pages rather than clicking a button. It took about 2 minutes to set up, and I was reading Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man a few moments later. There was no need to break the spine to get into a comfortable position whilst reading in bed; I didn’t even have to move my hand to turn the page because a light touch at the right-hand side did the job for me. And that word that I was not sure of the meaning? Well, tap the word and up comes the dictionary definition. This is the best bit about it.  Having instant access to the meanings of words and not having to trudge off to get my massive OED, which was out of date the moment it was published. The other brilliant thing about it is that, as soon as I have finished a book, off I go to the Kindle store (I haven’t left the house, I hasten to add) and purchase another book to start reading almost immediately. Admittedly, Kindle books have VAT added to the price unlike the VAT-free paper equivalent but they are still cheaper. Some of the classics are even free. 
 
Yes, the Kindle has certainly re-kindled my already-strong love of literature and will now mean that I do not have the tiresome problem of storing hefty books on my already-overburdened bookcases. 
 
Kindle, I salute you. 

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