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It’s a kind of magic

posted on 09 Aug 2017

It’s a kind of magic

In his 2012 publication, One For the Books, Joe Queenan says this:

 For me and for all those like me, books are sacred vessels. Postcards and photos and concert programs and theater tickets and train schedules are souvenirs; books are connective tissue. Books possess alchemical powers, imbued with the ability to turn darkness into light, ennui into ecstasy, a drab, predictable life behind the Iron Curtain into something stealthily euphoric. Or so book lovers believe. The tangible reality of books defines us, just as the handwritten scrolls of the Middle Ages defined the monks who concealed them from barbarians. We believe that the objects themselves have magical powers.

This represents a brave attempt to pin down something that is frustratingly hard to articulate – why the physical book is special; why it’s more, and always will be more, than any electronic simulacrum. I know it is but I seem to know it at an emotional  level and that seems to only translate into something that makes sense for those who share that belief. I also know this is unsatisfactory and it makes me fundamentally uncomfortable because it’s way too close to how religious believers justify their belief in the supernatural – there may not be any evidence but I believe it’s true, I have faith.

I have often tried to explain that this feeling isn’t just vaporous fancy or magical thinking and this special quality of the physical book is a real and tangible thing – something which is in fact more physical and sensory than spiritual.  But I have to confess that it is hard to identify the point at which the sensual, physical pleasure of handling a book tips over into being something rapturous or mystical.

The production of the book, like other works of art, has an incredible back story to tell – it starts with the author who researches, imagines and writes down the content and passes on to the editors who refine and revise, the publishers and art directors who design the product and the printers and binders who make all this endeavour into something tangible. Finally it’s on to the bookseller to ensure it makes its way to the reader.

It is this sense of inheriting a unique history and becoming part of that story that makes purchasing and reading the book a visceral experience and I think it’s also behind the desire to get hold of the first edition, first printing that can obsess some collectors. To handle something that owes its existence to and can trace an unbroken direct line to the original creator inspires an elemental cave-dweller’s desire to somehow possess the ‘spirit’ of the maker.

I have seen it suggested, I think by Alberto Manguel,  the wonderful Argentinian literary critic and bibliophile, that simply handling, holding and leafing through a volume is enough to give you a ‘connection’ with both the author and the content – even before you’ve actually read it. I don’t know if this is something other people have  found to be true but I can say from personal experience that this is a point of view I can sympathise with. This is something that can never be had from an electronic reader and it’s undeniable that the feel of a book in your hands is specific.

There was a time when I really thought that the predictions of the physical book being superseded by electronic readers might have some truth in it. There seemed to be both a public desire to move to electronic readers and a more devious commercial strategy underpinning the change – rather in the way vinyl was replaced by cd and then by streaming. Maybe, I feared, however unique the experience of holding and reading a physical book is, it wouldn’t be enough to save it from extinction.

But of course that’s not how it’s turned out. As the flirtation with electronic books cools, books as physical things to own and cherish have emerged again as objects of desire and look stronger in the marketplace than they have for many years. Much of this can be put down to a magnificent response from publishers and book designers who reacted to the challenge of electronic books by creating some of the most beautiful books I have seen in my lifetime.

All new technologies take some time to find their appropriate role in society and it’s clear that reading isn’t an either/or proposition when it comes to the choice between a paper book or an electronic reader. Both have, and will continue to have, their part to play - I just happen to believe that there is only one choice that can be made when it comes to having an emotional and physical relationship with a writer and a writers ideas and that’s through the traditional printed book.

 

Terry Potter

August 2017