The (Re)Imagined Book
As long as humans have existed, and possibly before, there have been stories. Narrative is part of the human condition – its symptom and its treatment. In many ways it defines who we are: self-reflexive beings processing the experience of being alive and producing artefacts as a result – cave-paintings and cathedrals, symphonies and pop songs, ballet and burlesque, the silver screen and the snapshot, poetry and novels. The fruits of civilization. If this is now the era of the Anthropocene, as many scientists are suggesting,1 then perhaps our finest legacy will be such treasures: humanity measured not in terms of carbon footprint but in terms of its collected works.
David Lodge suggests: ‘Literature is a record of human consciousness, the richest and most comprehensive we have.’2 Within the qualia of a novel we can experience vicariously the lives of others. We can hold eternity in the palm of our hand.
As a self-confessed bibliophile (or ‘fetishist’3) I would argue that a well-produced book is the perfect ergonomic and aesthetic object. It is the right shape and size for an individual to hold, opening it with their opposable thumbs, resting it upon the lap, spine nestling snugly between the thighs, or upon a table surface, in an armchair, in the bath, in the bed, under the covers … textual intimacy.4 As our fingertips caress the edges of the page, the margins just the right width for us to hold it without obscuring the text, the guttering allowing for the curved ingress of the pages, our eyes feast on the words: top to bottom, or up and down, the nomad gaze entering stage left or right. Our minds turn the shapes of the letters or pictograms into information, into sounds and images, feelings and thoughts, sensations and reflections. They are projected via the eye’s beam onto the cinema screen of our minds. The weight and texture of the paper, the spell of the font, the silken dust jacket and rough binding, the inky musk and rustle of the pages as we turn them, revealing more, always more, all contribute to the sensual, textual-sexual experience. A book is a story we tell ourselves. We control the pace and quantity. We can choose to pause, to revisit, to browse, to speed-read, to flick ahead, to stop, to resume. A book has no shelf-life. It requires no batteries or upgrades. It can survive spillages. Being sat on. Crushed in a bag or a pocket. It requires nothing but your attention.
It allows you to be yourself.
To read a book is to expand the mind, to broaden the horizons via mental travel; to understand and empathize with other cultures; to visit other worlds and ways of being. Magnanimous and compassionate, it ennobles us. It is hard to remain small- minded if you read widely. One learns of other truths, appreciates other points of view. We meet ToM5 and realize being alive on planet Earth is a dialogue of many voices, not a monologue. We learn to listen. To see. To be.
Each book is a door. A portal. An invitation. A call to adventure. We can choose to cross its threshold. To venture into its world. To meet new characters and encounter situations that, however exotic, can strike a chord. Give us an epiphany, a moment of gnosis. We remember what we know. Rediscover our innate wisdom. Have life lessons echoed back to us from another culture. Suddenly the stranger no longer seems so strange. Suddenly the unknown is not so terrifying. We find our courage for we have been bold. We find our strength for we have been enduring. We remember what it is to be human.6
A book gives you time to think. To discover your own truth. It is loathed by those who want to control your reality, who hate free-range thinking. Books can be banned and burnt and you can be imprisoned, even executed, for owning the wrong kind, in an inopportune time or place. Books can open your mind or, in some cases, close it. They are neither good nor bad on their own. They just deliver the message. We are all, pretty much, born with the same hardware. It is up to us, or our parents, teachers, priests or peers, what software we install.7 Pick up another book and change that software, or modify it. Debug it. Reboot your brain. We can change the coding that we’ve been given.
Books can be subversive. They fill our heads with nonsense, with foolish ideas about freedom, equality, tolerance, justice, and compassion. They can limber up our imagination, circuit-train the intellect. Fancy goes for a run with reason. Like a wise friend they can bring out the best of us, or they can allow us to walk on the wild side, to dance with our shadow in a safe environment. We can enjoy virtual thrills without inflicting them on others. We can hang out with a bad crowd. Behave inappropriately. Laugh at society’s foibles and facades. The page can be a mirror – self-awareness ensues. It can be a window – hypothetical scenarios are considered. It can be a soothing balm to place against the fevered brow. It can be a companion in solitude. A guide on a journey. Somebody somewhere understands what we are going through. This message in a bottle has landed on your shore. Soul speaks to soul across the centuries.
A book is the next best thing to telepathy. It’s the earliest teleportation device, transcending distance, ignoring borders and the boundaries of age, ethnicity, gender, culture, political persuasion or sexual preference. It is a time-machine, and a time-capsule. Noah’s Ark and a black box. It is a cure-all for humankind’s amnesia. For history’s dementia. A fossil-record of thought, and a living rainforest of ideas. Verso and recto, it looks forwards and backwards, a Janus janitor of each age.
Writers have been re-imagining the book and its myriad possibilities since at least Gutenberg and Caxton, earlier if you consider the book as a way of presenting text in a readable form, from Egyptian papyrus, Chinese scrolls, Babylonian tablets, to Christian illuminated manuscripts on vellum and Ogham marks on Celtic Crosses. Now e-readers such as Kindle have made science fiction reality.8 Books can now be hypertextual experiences, with audio files, video clips, interviews, different editions, and alternative endings. Websites like Book Drum and Story Mechanics offer ‘added content’ to classics. Apps seem especially congruent with the SF/Fantasy genre, as recent novels The Silent History (2014); Arcadia (2015) illustrate. However, the results can be unsatisfactory, redundant, even infuriating, e.g. the ‘enhanced’ version of The Thirty-Nine Steps,9 which some readers found ‘slowed down the action’ rather than added to it. Perhaps as more texts are designed for multi-media platforms from the outset, the more successful they’ll become – digital native narratives.
Beyond all these whistles and bells, the novel can, with only 26 letters and a stack of paper, be an enduring platform for structural and genre-fluid experiments, e.g. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004); Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013); and Ali Smith’s How to be Both (2014). The human imagination is boundless.
Innovative models of publishing such as the crowd-sourcing approach of Unbound, illustrates how even methods of funding and production can still shake things up, challenging the gatekeeping of the larger publishing houses.10
The ‘death of the book’ has been much discussed by Will Self and other grim reapers. Yet recent trends prove otherwise. In the summer of 2015 Waterstones stopped selling Kindle Open Book. It seems the market in e-readers has peaked. Publishers have fought back in recent years with an increase in hand-drawn covers and vintage style bindings. Far from being just of connoisseur appeal, the printed book is proving to be a tenacious artefact. Writers are tentatively exploring the possibilities of multimedia, but nothing replaces a good story, good writing. The author might not be dead, although their role could be changing. If the book is a ‘vessel for vanity’, the author may no longer be at the helm.11
Authorial (or editorial) authority seems to be in danger of being subverted by ‘interactive narratives’. Yet have not books always been interactive? Imaginatively, but also physically. Coming across an old book whose pages haven’t been slit open; or a lost manuscript in a dusty old ledger;12 or simply discovering a cheap-but- longed-for paperback in the fecund chaos of a second-hand bookshop. Yes, bookshops are part of the life-affirming nature of the literature.13
Our bodies are libraries, recording all experiences, exercise, diet, injuries, trauma, and evolutionary memory. We are living books. In Iceland they say: ‘ad ganga med bok I maganum’, literally, ‘everyone has a book in their stomach.’14 We are pregnant with narrative.
The book will keep surprising us. Its protean nature will ensure its survival. The novel, by its very name, must and will keep re-inventing itself, reflecting the way we live. In whatever format or interface narrative will out while the human remains.15
Essay by Kevan Manwaring, University of Leicester
3‘Will we develop a fetish over iPads in 20 years the way we have about typewriters?’ Tom McCarthy, https://twitter.com/UniArtsLondon/status/677214982258454529 [accessed 24.02.16]
4‘I am very grateful to the electronic world for making my life easier, but there is something about holding a book - the smell and the world of association. Even when e-books are perfected, as they surely will be, it will be like being in bed with a very well-made robot rather than a warm, soft, human being whom you love.’ Anne Fadiman
5‘Theory of Mind’ refers to the cognitive capacity to attribute mental states to self and others’, Alvin I. Goldman, ‘Theory of Mind’, Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Cognitive Science (2012), Edited by Eric Margolis, Richard Samuels, and Stephen Stich Theory of Mind Oxford Handbook [accessed 24.02.16]
6‘I do think that books are invaluable as a reservoir of what we call the human space. And this is why I think that, even if they’re threatened, the work they do has an incalculable merit.’ Junot Diaz
9itunes.apple.com/us/book/thirty-nine-steps-enhanced/id421028426?mt=11 [accessed 24.02.16]
11‘The book is a vessel for vanity’, Tom Uglow, Books and the Human Debate, 16.12.15 twitter.com/UniArtsLondon/status/677215570878726144 [accessed 24.02.2016]
13‘I get up in the morning, do my e-mail, I check my e-mails all day. I'll go online and I'll buy my books at Amazon.com, but I don't want to buy all of them because I want to go to Duttons and I want to buy books from another human being.’ Joseph Bologna
14‘Iceland: Where one in 10 people will publish a book’ www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24399599 [accessed 19.02.16]
15‘Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly connecting and controlling the story we tell others - and ourselves - about who we are.’ David Bennett, cited by Lodge, 2002: 15