Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Bookplanet: books that shouldn't be

Her word -- by Jeanette Winterson
'Let's stop publishing books that don't really need to be books'

THE NEWS THIS WEEK THAT university libraries want to pulp books and journals and establish a centralised archive for research seems to have attracted its polar opposite in the just-opened exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum of the world's first hand-written illuminated manuscript in 500 years.

So here is my prediction. Books will go back to being art objects.

All books? No! Even if you illuminated every page of David Beckham's auto- biography or Jordan's diet and detox tips, even if you had monks write upside down in llama's blood (sorry) on gold leaf, it would have no more effect than kissing toads with no prince inside.

As usual, human beings, locked in binary oppositions of good/bad, beautiful/ugly, yes/no, are agonising over a world of books/no books. The rip-roaring success of the iPod, and now the i-video, or whatever it is called, where all the music and films you could want no longer need to be objects, just streams of data, has left the publishing world wondering where it fits in. Nobody, not even academics, who are hardier than most, want books in any other form than books. At the same time, we acknowledge that books have become as throwaway as everything else in our culture, so what do we do?

First, we stop publishing books that needn't be books. People who don't really read don't really need books -- so let them have Jordan and Becks in lots of other ways. Audio, animated-audio, that is, audio with picture --that is just about right for most celebrity publications. Before you think that I have gone mad, remember that Susan Greenfield, who knows a thing or two, has speculated that in the future people won't need to be able to read or write.

Remember that mass literacy wasn't even discussed until the 19th century -- reading the way we read now has not been around for long and may not be the way forward.

Academic papers could also easily be stored as digital downloads. Most PhD theses will never be read, and that is probably no loss.

The push from government for academics to go on producing pointless research year in year out, whether or not they have anything to say, has led to the present university library explosion. There is simply nowhere to put this stuff. Government is suspicious of creative endeavour and productive daydreaming, so it tries to turn academics into civil servants. Shove pieces of paper around and you are doing your job -- get on with your teaching and think long and deep until you have something to say -- and you are clearly a waste of taxpayers' money.

Too much is being published. It is time to use new technology to slim the bloat. It is no shame to find other formats for publications that should not be books at all.

And then I have to argue against myself and realise that censorship and the rewriting of history will be much easier when books are no longer books.

There are whole teams of bearded computer nerds advertising their services to retrieve ancient pieces of work filed in the 1970s. The discs and machines are obsolete. This will go on being the case. It will be easy for governments to control thought by controlling access to information. Anyone can pick up a book -- the 1970s already need specialist knowledge and equipment -- so bad luck if you left the key to the universe on a floppy disc the size of a 78rpm record.

Remember those?

The beauty and energy and subversive freedom of books is that anyone can read them, if they can read.

There is a real fear that it will be too easy to get rid of things that do not suit the ideology of the moment, and this could be done not by the extrovert glamour of banning or burning, which always attracts attention and censure, but simply by reformatting the data -- oops sorry, we haven't destroyed it, it's just that no one will be able to open the file.

Call me old-fashioned, but there is nothing more democratic than a book -- which is why tyrants read with a fatwa in one hand and a petrol can in the other.

I encourage readers to write in with their own ideas of what the future holds for books. In the meantime go to the V&A and see the exquisite St John's Bible. You might even want to contribute to the 25 million London Library Appeal -- it is to buy the house next door to accomodate some of the 8,000 new titles that the library acquires each year.


Post a Comment

<< Home