Fake books not OK for classics

ROSEMARY MCLEOD
Last updated 05:00 19/12/2013

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Rosemary McLeod

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OPINION: I'm ending this year on a mutinous note, giving old technology for Christmas presents. It's called books, and count yourself lucky if you get one.

The Kindle in all its forms has to be confronted, sabotaged, hurled to the techno-dumping site where all bad things go. It is a feeble substitute for the pleasure of reading the printed word the way old technology intended and pleasure dictates, with book in hand.

If someone gives you a Kindle this Christmas jump on the wretched thing, and do so vigorously. You will not be a Luddite, but an aesthete standing up for the better thing. Read Jane Austen on plastic? Really?

What is contained within books is not mere "information technology", the offensive term beloved of the new heathens who'd like to burn the lot. That's like saying food is just nutrition, ignoring its taste, appearance and smell.

A good book may not necessarily be the precious life-blood of a master spirit, as the poet Milton put it, but any book is an experience for more senses than its uppity digital replacement.

Books smell, and unless they're impregnated with mould or cigarette smoke, they smell good. Their paper isn't all the same, and neither are the inks that make the words. Paper can smell warm, be strangely perfumed, even smell a little unpleasant, but it has a presence. Plastic doesn't.

Paper also comes in a range of textures of every grade of difference between smooth and rough, soft and hard. It does not lack character.

Compare a cheap book published since digital printing took over, too, with a book from long before, and consider which is the greater pleasure to look at.

Consider typefaces in their infinite variety, and compare them with what comes up on your computer screen, or any screen for that matter. You will answer in a millisecond in favour of the book if you're not a hopeless heathen. The imprint of type on a page in an older book is part of its character, like its incomparable clarity, the carefully selected typeface, and the denseness of the ink. You will see this.

Then there are covers, designed to attract the discerning eye. In older books, just the ordinary ones your grandparents got for Christmas, books could be bound in cloth, another element of touch, under their dust jackets. You could find there, hidden under the paper wrapper, embossed patterns that still delight, and flashes of unsuspected colour.

The dust jackets themselves were and are more than mere aids for the meticulous housewife. They were intended to be attractive, and like the illustrations inside, could be works of art. Can plastic gadgets compete with this? Madness.

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What's more, and this is part of its importance in our lives, a book is a social thing. You can lend it. Most of the time it won't come back, but the lending is a gesture of friendship in the first place, or at the very least a civil gesture.

You can't lend a book from a Kindle, though you may have a whole library full of them tucked inside it. That vast volume of stuff may be miraculous, if digitalisation makes you swoon, but friendship is 10 times more complex and marvellous.

Books, through their appearance, touch, and contents, make for memories.

You may only ever want to read a certain book in a Penguin Modern Classic edition, or in the strange little American paperback within which you first found a favourite writer.

The books on your shelves – and you must have bookshelves to be civilised – are a kind of autobiography of what made you who you are.

I even keep some of my family's books to remind me, say, that as a boy my young father had books about traction engines, and wrote lists of birds' names on exercise book pages tucked inside them. This reminds me that a book can hold secrets that a mere hunk of plastic can't. It can even hoard biscuit crumbs.

- The Dominion Post

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