Not so long ago, if the hype was to be believed, the book was doomed. Jeremiahs joyfully foretold of its imminent demise and imagined a paperless future in which trees could grow tall without fear of being hacked down, pulped and transformed into the Sun. Nor were book lovers any more sanguine.
It is less than a decade since the American author James Salter, in the introduction to Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves, offered an apocalyptic take on what lay in store. ‘A tide is coming in,’ Salter wrote, ‘and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away. The physical possession of a book may become of little significance.’
Not withstanding the irony of learning about the death of the book in a book, there did seem cause for concern. The popularity of e-books was rising and, commuting by bus to work, I viewed with dismay the usurpation of tatty paperbacks and tea-stained bestsellers borrowed from a beleaguered library by Kindles which allowed one to read without embarrassment Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest effusions from the likes of Ken Follett and Jeffrey Archer. I admit myself to a brief flirtation with an e-reader, which I acquired courtesy of a publisher eager to introduce me to the twenty-first century. It had some appeal, not the least of which was the ability to carry numerous books where previously I had to restrict my choice to what could be fitted into a backpack. Briefly, I entertained the notion that my entire library, amassed over a half century, might be accommodated in a device no bigger and not much heavier than a new hardback.
Soon, however, the novelty wore off, and I returned – chastised for my faithlessness – to my collection which seems to grow like ivy across the walls of our flat. Here still are the books that I bought in that first flush of adolescent pretentiousness: Boswell’s Life of Johnson bought in Blacklock and Farries bookshop in Dumfries while attending a Boys’ Brigade camp; Don Quixote, which I found in the basement of James Thin’s on Edinburgh’s South Bridge and which accompanied me to my first job in London; a slim Penguin edition of John Donne’s poems which for 2/6 I bought in Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road, the only book I could afford to buy during a year-long sojourn on Balham High Road. All of them, I might add, have survived intact and with less sign of aging than their owner.
Then as now buying and reading was part of a pleasurable process. Often on Saturday afternoons a friend and I would circumnavigate Edinburgh’s many secondhand bookshops. Starting at McNaughtan’s in Elm Row near the top of Leith Walk, we would make our way – via the Cafe Royal or the Abbotsford – to Dundas Street. There, the main attraction was the Book Cellar which was run by David McNaughton who, as far as I am aware, had no family connection to his near-namesake. Prior to becoming a bookseller he had been in Fleet Street, working nightshifts as a teleprinter operator. Flushed of complexion and always looking a tad harassed, as if he’d left a kettle boiling on a hob, he could put his hand on any requested title. The late 1960s and early 1970s were what have come to seem a golden period for the trade in the erstwhile ‘capital of the mind’. Thrice weekly, the auctioneer Lyon and Turnbull held book sales in cobbled Rose Street Lane South at the back of their George Street HQ. Nearby was Dowells which ran more specialist auctions.
Leaving behind the New Town, my book-mad friend and I would hike up the Mound toward the Southside where, in the environs of the university, were yet more places in which to forage and pubs in which to water. My shelves are testimony to the success of these expeditions, sets (plural!) of Dickens and Proust, Hardy’s Wessex novels in Macmillan’s wafer-papered, pocket-sized edition, multiple copies of Kidnapped, the Bodley Head’s Henry James and Graham Greene, Dent’s Joseph Conrad, Hogarth Press’s Virginia Woolf, Faber’s Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath, Jonathan Cape’s Eric Linklater.
Where this itch came from, what its locus was, I have no idea. My father was a reader but by no means a voracious one. From time to time he enjoyed a thriller by Hammond Innes or Alistair MacLean, and from him I inherited an addiction to murder stories, especially the courtroom dramas of Erle Stanley Gardner. But there were few books in our house and those there were had not been bought by us. Most were prizes awarded for perfect attendance at Sunday School. One year I was given Miracle on the River Kwai by Ernest Gordon, another The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. Such was the approved catholic taste of the Kirk. Once read, I never threw away a book and rarely allowed one be borrowed.
On holiday at Rothesay I acquired Born Free and its sequels by Joy Adamson and hankered – as rain drummed on the caravan roof – for a life in the bush raising lion cubs. All it took to remove me from a dreich, humdrum Scottish summer to the back of beyond was a few sentences. It was an alchemical power to possess. Simply by putting one book aside and picking up another you could move through time and space, change who you were and the circumstances in which you lived. Not only that but you could also swap one mood for another.
‘The tedium of childhood,’ writes Jacques Bonnet, ‘could only be fought by two things: sport or reading. And reading was something like the river flowing through the Garden of Eden, its four watercourses heading off toward the four horizons. Reading scorns distance, and could transport me instantly into the most faraway countries with strangest customs. And it did the same for centuries of the past: I had only to open a book to be able to walk through seventeenth-century Paris, at the risk of having a chamber-pot emptied over my head, to defend the walls of Byzantium as they tottered before falling to the Ottomans, or to stroll through Pompeii the night before it was buried under a tidal wave of ash and lava.’
That I took for granted the object in which there was such potential must shamefully be acknowledged. On this we bibliomaniacs have a soulmate in Keith Houston. In The Book, he says that ‘it is all too easy to take the physical existence of books for granted’. This leads, he adds, ‘to a kind of bibliographic snow blindness’. Houston’s book is about ‘the physical book’ as opposed to its electronic cuckoo. It is about books whose heft you can weigh in your hand, which have a smell and make a noise, which you can flip through ‘and feel the breeze on your face’, which when you drop one on your foot may make you yell in pain. These are the books which prefer curtained rooms and air that is cool and ever so slightly moist. They are dust-gatherers, space-eaters, money-swallowers, guilt-inducers. For the more we accumulate the less likelihood there is of us ever reading them. When people who do not read books enter the homes of those of us who do they want immediately to know if we have read them all which, of course, is impossible. Had we but world, and time enough! What having all these books reminds us of is that we are in constant conflict with mortality. What we would really like to do is down tools and surrender whatever hours we have left to reading and rereading, a neverending cycle, a recipe for frustration, a definition of hopelessness.
Houston’s book about the book – a handsome artefact as well as an informative, and inventive one – traces it from its origins in papyrus and parchment to the era of cheap paper, moveable type and mass production. It is an oft-told tale but a rivetting one nonetheless. One good reason for the book’s longevity is the glacial manner in which it has evolved, thus justifying Houston’s boast in his sub-title that it is ‘the most powerful object of our time’. Ergonomically perfect, it is also wonderfully adaptable. To read a book you need only to have mastered the ability to read. Overall, however, books have not changed that much over the centuries. ‘Some books,’ notes Houston, ‘are still made in the mould of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Ragyndrudis Codex and the like. If you yearn for a Coptic-stitched book, simply spend a few dollars on a Moleskine notebook, which is stitched together without a reinforced spine so that it opens flat.’
No one person invented the book. Even Johannes Gutenberg – 1400 to 1468 or thereabouts – cannot claim credit for that. He didn’t even, Houston acknowledges, invent printing which long predates him. Nor, it seems, did he pioneer movable type, which allowed books to be printed in numbers hitherto unimaginable. In that he was pre-empted by some four hundred years by ‘a Chinese commoner named Bi Sheng’, whose name rings few bells today even in his native land. What Gutenberg did do, however, was make movable type effective. In short, he perfected that which had proved previously to be unworkable. It was no mean achievement and once the man from Mainz had opened the door the production of books began in earnest across Europe and beyond.
Scotland, it is perhaps worth recording, was one of the last of the then ‘civilised’ countries to have a printing press within its borders. It was not until 1508 – seven decades after Gutenberg made his breakthrough – that Walter Chepman and Andrew Myllar set up their press in Edinburgh and were granted by James IV a protectionist tariff against English competitors. But it was not until the eighteenth century and after the Union with England that printing in Scotland took off. Then it was Glasgow and the Foulis brothers, Robert and Andrew, who made up for lost ground.
Their books can still be read today and are relatively inexpensive to buy. I have a couple myself though I’m not sure I could put a hand on them just this moment. Books, like socks, have a way of appearing and disappearing. They seem wilfully to resist order and are defiant of category. Meanwhile, bibliomania continues to bedevil those who search for a cure. There is no panacea, no wonder pill you can take, not much sympathy either from those free from affliction. Nor is there an organisation such as Alcoholics Anonymous to which one can turn. It’s one of those things with which you just have to learn to live.