Bookless shelves

Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question is whether to kill yourself or not. Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question is whether time has a beginning and an end. Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of bed, and Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm. There is only one serious question. And that is: Who knows how to make love stay? Answer me that and I will tell you whether or not to kill yourself. – Tom Robbins

Martin Hughes and Zoe Dattner interviewed Richard Nash at the Wheeler Centre and replayed the interview on RRR’s Max Headroom on 22 July 2010. Due to the miracle of modern technology, I listened to it the other day.

Richard Nash described print-books as ‘talismanic things’ that were passed between loved ones with the same emotional sensibility and heirloom potential as ‘a piece of jewellery’. He said, ‘Bookshelves are a kind of way of telegraphing to a person that comes in our front door for the first time, who we are.’

Zoe Dattner asserted that it’s the stories that matter, not the books themselves. In the ebook/e-reader future: ‘Bookshelves will just be called shelves and we’ll put all sorts of stuff on there so when we go to people’s houses we’ll still do that stuff – or their Myspace page or whatever – there will be lots of spaces where we can display that kind of personal expression of ourselves …’

Ah Zoe, you break my heart.

The book, the old fashioned print-book, is not a download. It’s not words on a screen. I have nothing against online publishing. Look, here I am, publishing online. I love the Internet. But the online book and e-reader type device is not a print-book; they are different beasts and I think it’s a kind of tragedy to imagine, as Zoe suggests, that there’s no need for both. Why does electronic technology have to obliterate the material, papery, dog-eared artefact? I agree with Richard Nash. The artefact of the book has a meaning, it is a jewel.

Imagine this: I’m 20-something and standing in front of the bookshelf explaining to my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend that the difference between he and I, is ‘all these books, all these books are inside me, they’ve informed me, shaped my thinking either by osmosis or rejection or examination or some kind of tunnel I’ve been through. An initiation. And not just the words but the circumstances around the words – everything I brought to the words at the time. All these books are places I’ve been without you – and they matter.’

Yes, you might think he would have just left right then of his own accord, but that’s not the point.

I loved Tom Robbins when I was eighteen and can remember spending an intimate week with Still Life with Woodpecker. Reading it again at forty-something, it took only a couple of hours and wasn’t quite the vibrant life-changing experience I remembered, though I didn’t have nearly as bad a reaction as this person. There were still plenty of quotes I wanted to write down – though perhaps now I’m not so keen to put them in cards or on the facing pages of other books and give them to my friends (and foes). Clearly I had brought a lot to the story from my own story, from where I was in my life at the time.

Pondering this as part of a wider pondering about reading, writing and why books matter, I came to the conclusion that it’s not just the stories themselves; it’s also the stories that belong to when and where the book was read, whose hands it came from, how it ended up on the shelf, other places the shelf has been housed – the reason the book has a meaning beyond the artefact. The book itself evokes both memory and meaning.

At the bookshelf, as I stood there trying to explain the disaster it boded for he and I, all its authors and their books seemed to pulse behind me like some kind of energy, some being – all the nothing of my learning. I say nothing, because there I was fighting with a lover who could barely read the* Herald Sun* so I can’t have known too much or I’d have simply walked. Smiled, waved and walked. But no, there I was, trying to explain in words what all the words meant and how they’d shaped and affected me: to someone who wasn’t the slightest bit interested in my words or anybody else’s.

Could it possibly have been the same if I showed him my ‘Myspace page or whatever’ and said – see! this is a major player in what shaped me from childhood to now. Here’s a photo of the virtual page my father held in his hands, one arm round my shoulders, reading me to sleep. Here’s the one my mother propped me up with in my sick-bed to while away the hours after I had my appendix out and the recovery didn’t go too well – the cause of me missing seven weeks of primary school but advancing my reading to The Hobbit, Watership Down and beyond …

All right. Maybe angst-ridden lovers in the future will be able to say ‘Here’s the Facebook page that catapulted my teenaged mind into thinking about social justice. The tweet that awakened questions about intimacy, guilt and yearning; deepened by this download and that podcast and … but alas, I can’t show you any of that because the display-technology no longer exists.’

But even if the current technology survives, could it possibly speak like the dog-eared paperback with my mother’s writing on the facing page? The glorious hardback with the hand-sewn bookmark? The Albert Camus with the long, torturous self-penned poem and quote inscription from the best friend who understood my pain? The Penguin-classic with the moving-pictures drawn in the corner by the boy I loved in Year 9?

Yes, Zoe, despite its wildly materialistic limitations, I think any ‘things’ on shelves – ornaments, mementos, art and gifts from the well-meaning, including books, journals, et al – can reflect ‘who we are’ and yes, so can the Myspace page or whatever.

I think, however, that the difference is as mammoth as that between the typed word and the handwritten one in terms of how it reflects the creator, the individual.

It seems to me that the print-book as artefact can evoke a hidden history – a virtual world within the covers shaped by the reader and at the same time shaping the reader – in a way that a computer screen, phone or other e-reading device, cannot. Certainly not a ‘Myspace page’ or equivalent, probably created in a few hours and entirely mutable according to the mood/fashion of the moment. And the old manual typewriter on my kitchen bench agrees with me – a creature of very different mood to this mistake-devouring computer (bless them both).

Something else bothers me about the demise of the print-book as an artefact. Where does it leave the blind? The blind can currently read a book independently – very different to having to have it interpreted by the voice of another in audio form. Where are Braille books in the print-bookless society?

Well, I’m banking on the print-bookless society being much like the paperless society and look forward to there being more print-books than ever.

This piece has been cross-posted at Meanland.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

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