A few posts back I mentioned that I had “been reminded recently in three very concrete ways of how precious and irreplaceable real books are with their tang, tinge, smudge and wear, and most of all their tangible personal history.” Well the first reminder was that Family Bible, here’s the second. I recently received a beautiful book, in its own slip case from the Folio Society. If you know the Folio Society you’ll know they produce beautiful editions of books the way they used to be, the way they should be, beautifully bound and printed on good paper with pleasing typefaces, a pleasure to handle and made to last and hand down the generations. Well I have a few of their editions but so far they’d all been classics from an earlier age; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, The Canterbury Tales, the poems of Coleridge. But the other day I got a modern classic. It was Fahrenheit 451.
Now I can remember vividly the first time I picked up and read that book. It was a cheap ‘pulp-fiction style paperback with a lurid green cover and already-yellowed paper which I picked up as a teenager from a charity shop in downtown Hamilton. I couldn’t tell you where it is now, maybe I lost it or gave it away, but I never forgot the story.Indeed as so many of its predictions began to come true (the interactive entertainments, the dwindling attention spans, the ubiquitous ear-pieces and flat-screen TVs, the persistent dumbing down of the public sphere, the distress of others made a spectacle to titivate the jaded, the concerted attack on memory and learning) I began to realise how deeply that cheap disposable paperback had shaped me and sharpened my take on modern life.
But the deepest influence of all was the terrible image of burning books, burning books as part of an orchestrated assault on the past, a collective amnesia. And memories of that book came back when I first got involved in the current debate on the merits of ebooks versus paper books.
Now I have lots of ebooks and I find their searchability and portability very helpful, but alarm bells rang when I discovered that they could be centrally altered or even deleted whenever I logged in, that the e-medium was essentially transient and manipulable. Ever since then I’ve made sure I have a real, hardbound paper copy of every book that matters to me.
Which is why, when my beautiful folio society edition of Farenheit 451 dropped through the door it made such an impact. Of all the books they could have chosen to print in such a sumptuous and beautiful way surely this was the most appropriate. To present the book which was itself a defence of the power and permanence of the printed page, in such a beautiful and permanent form was itself to validate and amplify the meaning of its contents.
If in some future dystopia the cyber-firemen of a totalitarian state delete every e-copy of Fahrenheit 451 I’ll be reading and sharing this copy in secret with the other die-hard old-age survivors!