For all the convenience, the ease of reference and access afforded by the ubiquitous ‘ebook’, I have 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.
I’ll tell you today about the first of my three reminders, which came in a remote croft in Wester Ross in the far northwest of Scotland, an old place where my uncle lived and where, under portraits of my grandparents and great-grandparents, I can browse his library with its annotated volumes of Donne along with his own articles on the same, and the several volumes of my grandmother’s poetry. The reminder came this summer when my uncle’s widow gave me an old Bible. Beautifully bound and printed, it is inscribed with my great-grandfather’s name and dated 1876, it has his pencilled underlinings and annotations over his many years of reading, and best of all, on a slip of paper inside the front cover it has the poem he wrote for my great-grandmother on their wedding anniversary in 1894.
Of course the Bible is a precious book in any form, and I have, and consult, many Bibles. I even have a handy, searchable Greek New Testament on my iPhone! But this is different . The Bible itself is like a family album telling the long tale, over many generations of how God came to His people and, in the end, came to all of us in Christ. It is also the story of our long pilgrimage from the first garden of our beginnings, through the wilderness, and at last to the City of God in which the garden itself is renewed. But this particular copy of the Bible ties the threads of my own family into that bundle of life. In the anniversary poem my great-grandfather celebrates with his wife the way in which this particular Bible had accompanied them on their pilgrimage through time as they read it together:
“The years roll on unheeded in their flight
Maybe because you help to make them bright
Dear Wife in this our earthly pilgrimage
Each day may we peruse the sacred page
And learn how we, by God’s good guiding hand,
Redeemed at last, may reach the Heavenly land.”
And my jaw dropped whenI read this because I had used just that same image of pilgrimage together, in a Wedding anniversary poem I had written for Maggie some years earlier:
‘He made us, loved us, formed us and has set
His chosen pair of lovers in an ark.
Borne upwards by his spirit, we will float
Above the rising waves, the falling dark
As fellow pilgrims, driven towards that haven,
Where all will be redeemed, fulfilled, forgiven’
The tone, the tenor, the metre, and the meaning might all have been my great-grandfather’s!
It happened that I had with me the proofs for Sounding the Seasons, which I was still working on, and I had chosen one particular verse of Scripture (Luke 10:1) as an epigraph for the whole volume, to say that I was sending out my seventy sonnets, as bearers of good news, just as Jesus sent out the seventy. I should have known that when I turned to that page in my great-grandfather’s Bible, that verse would be underlined!
So when I pick up this worn old Bible and open it, I am in touch with something, and I have something to hand on, which no easy ebook, no digitised multi-version, will ever replace. I hope that by the time my great-grandchildren are reading it there will be a few more poems tucked inside!
Remind me to tell you about my other two reminders!