Why loving books is not the same as loving stories
On a couple of occasions recently while watching documentaries there have been shots of various libraries from around the world and I have emitted involuntary noises of serious appreciation more suited to the sighing of eye candy of some sort. One of them was actually a library in Russia. Vast terraces of shelves of books, stretching into the distance, complete with ladders to reach the higher ones, and neat desks complete with lamps with poison-green glass shades. For one millisecond I could smell the wonderful vanilla aroma of old books mingled with the more animalic tones of the leather binding, and feel the pent-up expectant hush that comes with such places and the soft indoor breeze caused by the tuning of hundreds of heavy pages of thick cream paper.
That’s what I call a proper library. Shoot me if you like but I don’t like modern accessible libraries with their noisy children’s corners (that is to say, noisy areas for children rather than corners for children who make a lot of noise, though the two are pretty much synonymous) and colourful displays and internet desks. I haven’t even got round to joining the library here, only two doors away from my own front door because it’s that kind of library. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I know all the arguments in favour of making libraries places where people can chat and children can discover the wonder of books. It’s just not for me. I’m not comfortable with it in the same way I’m deeply uncomfortable with people conversing in normal voices about everyday topics in the period before a church service starts (after the service is fine. If I ever go these days, I bow my head and stay silent and apparently in prayer to avoid this sort of conversation.)
I LOVE books. I always have done. I was gutted when before moving to the coast in 2006, among the many physical things that were given away, a large number of books had to go or we had no chance of fitting into our new but MUCH smaller house. I own books I will never be able to read (though I did give my Hebrew Bible to a friend who reads the language) and I am haunted by inner visions of mysterious, heavy, leather bound books that hold secrets and wonders. It’s why, despite having a digital copy of Jung’s Red Book, I do one day want to own a real physical copy. The digital pictures have merely whetted my desire.
A book is an object of great beauty and it holds something that is beyond the story is turns out to contain. Books have themselves become a kind of archetype, something representing knowledge, wisdom, mystery and wonder, a vessel for enlightenment. I began some months back to write a small journal of my personal grail quest. I have painted a few pictures in it; holding it, with most of its pages still untouched, I am aware of the potential of the words I have written and those I have yet to find. There is something intrinsically HOLY about books. The notion of burning books makes me sick; throwing a book away will enrage me. I got very sharp with a student a few years ago as we stood at the Boreham Interchange services; I’d watched him read a book on the coach for several trips, and that day I saw him stand reading, finish the last page, shrug and proceed to THROW IT IN THE BIN. I went mildly ballistic and rescued the book. I have it still, regardless of the fact that my German is unlikely ever to be proficient enough to tackle it.
There is no such thing as a bad book. There are many bad stories, but the medium in which they are offered ought not to be tainted by this. In my opinion FSOG ought never have been printed; it’s now the volume that charity shops have ended up with stockpiles of. In its digital form it did not carry the same weight of existence as it does in paperback form, and now it seems that the idea of a “great book” is muddled up with great (ie: HUGE) sales, and the sheer numbers FSOG sold sets a measure all other books are somehow expected to aim at.
The argument between those who have embraced the digital era of the e-book and those who believe that it’s not a book unless it’s paper and ink is getting tired but there’s people like me who are happy that both are available. I love books but I also love stories. I love being able to hit “one click” and know that in seconds I will have a new story to enjoy. Some I then buy a hard copy of, either to give or to add to my own small library. Some stories are essentially disposable, read once and forget. In fact, the vast majority of beach-read blockbusters are like this, and I have been able in recent years to part with many(well, a few, anyway) of these indenti-kit novels.
But there’s always a huge part of me that is the girl who aged eighteen was so overawed that she was only able to stand inside the old British Library for a few seconds before the power of the books made her run away quivering ever so slightly. It’s that part of me that despite being a relative nobody in the world of books, I try to get my stories into book form, that paper-and-ink book baby, because the solid reality of a book you can cuddle* has a level to it that e-books can’t match, no matter how many are ever sold.
* Yes, I cuddle books. Doesn’t everyone?