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In an age of electronic reading devices that are becoming cheaper and cheaper to buy and ever growing catalogs of content for them, the time may have come to ask again, "Are Too Many Books Written and Published?"

The question is the title of a famous BBC radio debate between Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1927, in which Leonard argued that books ought to be handmade.  He criticized England’s reading public as having no appetite for good literature, only pop fiction, and said that quality had been abandoned for quantity.  Virginia had quite another view, one that could be deemed prophetic from today’s perspective.

She countered with points that could be taken as an argument for e-books.

Books ought to be so cheap that we can throw them away if we do not like them, or give them away if we do. Moreover, it is absurd to print every book as if it were fated to last a hundred years. The life of the average book is perhaps three months. Why not face this fact? Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time? If a second edition were needed, this could be printed on good paper and well bound. Thus by far the greater number of books would die a natural death in three months or so. No space would be wasted and no dirt would be collected.

Another way to couch the debate is to pitch elitist vs. democratic, or artisan vs. disposable approaches to literature.  In Western Europe, the history of the printed word began as an elitist activity enjoyed by the few (those who could read and write), the wealthy (those who could afford hand-written copies of documents), and the privileged (those who had room enough to house private collections).  Even when the Dark Ages caused literacy and writings to nearly become extinct, a handful of elite artisan Irish monks saved civilization by copying texts and creating a new art form: Illuminated books.

Later, Gutenberg’s invention upset the status quo, making books readily available not as works of art but works inviting dog-earring, thus encouraging literacy because material to read began to proliferate in the hands of hoi polloi when before there was nearly none.  Literary democracy helped make political democracy possible in Western Europe.  Surprisingly, a greater demand for the printed word made books cheaper, a counter-intuitive result of eager readers with little disposable income anxious to get their personal Bible, which any publisher with a conscience and an eye for profit would cater to.  Publishers salivate to be able to issue a best-seller.

However popular, most books were bulky, heavy, and large.  So, libraries greater than an armful of books remained the elite circumstance.  Over time the use of books changed, but not their status as symbols of learning, privilege, and still the possessions of the more privileged members of society.

Virginia Woolf’s ideas are modified in the concept of the public library where a single volume, often a cheaper library edition. serves many readers and makes limited numbers of volumes accessible by more readers than just the owner.  Think of it as a kind of "birth control" rather for publishing.

Other forms of anti-elitism utilizing a restricted number of books are book swaps and exchanges, personal lending, and book give-aways (assuming that the volumes aren’t replaced – in my case a mistaken assumption).  With literary democracy comes, to Leonard’s horror, shoddiness.  The book can be, as Virginia dreamed, as easily purchased and as cheap as a package of cigarettes, or less.  Just not the same convenient size.

Until now.

One can’t help wonder what Leonard would have thought had he lived today when books regarded as the highest quality, the Western Canon, his own wife’s oeuvre, are freely downloadable to your e-reader via The Gutenberg Project.  I can’t help but think that egalitarianism of this sort is the kind he would eagerly embrace, at least as eagerly as he embraced that king of democratic media, the radio broadcast.  Surely, he would have seen the lovely parallel between his voice going out to a vast audience via the air, "carried on electric waves," and books coming to one’s lap in similar fashion, noting that both are the means by which the numbers of lucky "elite" increase.

As a reader and book lover, I retain a snobbish (?) love of the aesthetic experience that only bound books provide and that Leonard cherished.  I confess to stroking the red morocco leather embossed with black Moorish design on an 1882 ed. of M. A. Titmarsh’s (William Makepiece Thackery’s nom de plume) La Rose et l’Anneau that has been in my family since 1897.  Or the gold stamped fleur de lis on stippled dark brown morocco cover of a 1910 La Tulipe Noir by Dumas.  And especially the red wood-grain leather that encases a 4th ed. of The Rubaiyat published in 1905 and inscribed on the fly leaf "Bon Voyage – Margie" that is nearly exactly the size of a package of cigarettes.

However democratizing, however disposable, however progressive, e-books lack artistic appeal and will never resonate with the kind of personal history, or be talisman’s of mystery, that a real book can be and often is.  No downloaded e-book, no matter that it is magically transported to my device, that is in itself so transportable, will transport my imagination in as many ways as hand held books do.  For that reason alone I hope books never die.

Originally posted to Limelite on Thu Jan 06, 2011 at 06:02 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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