Sunday, November 25, 2012

Marks of Use

We should admit that, as a civilisation, we have not yet outgrown the what should be by now banal charm of consumption. The Black Friday sales, for example, are merely a somewhat more concerted, visible and exhausting climax to what is already an interminable series of perpetual climaxes in the cycle of sales and discounts. I await the no doubt impending decision by shops to come clean and declare that the Christmas season starts not now, but in mid-May, or indeed, whenever they so wish. (I, for one, would be glad to get mince pies all year round.) Are we to be surprised by the contradictions in our collective, addled psyche, caused by relentless purchase and acquisition? Why do we feel a twinge of environmental guilt -- left in our minds like driftwood from the great sea of unexamined received wisdom -- when we use a plastic bag? And yet why do we then go home, plastic bag in hand no less, and cheerfully, sinlessly order a new coat we did not need 'for the season'? 

Many evils stem from this. But perhaps the most lamentable one of them is the literally throwaway attitude we take towards objects. One can be silly and romantic about this. There is nonetheless a serious point to be made. In a time of fewer — and better — objects, one would form closer attachments to objects. A belt, a watch, a pair of shoes: these could all be trusty sidekicks, over time turning into curmudgeonly old familiars. (No doubt the appeal of antiques and vintage clothing in part comes from this sense of loss.) In particular, I've been led to reflect on books as physical items.  My work this term on the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and his reception in England has brought me to many college libraries in Oxford and Cambridge. I've looked at many, many fifteenth- and sixteenth- century copies of Pico's work, trying to figure out how readers read these works from annotations, marginalia and other such clues. What's recorded in these physical remains is evidence, demanding to be interpreted, of the simplest of acts we often take for granted: that of the interaction between a book — both as text and physical object — and the reader.

Books then were much bigger and rarer. Reading was a much more obviously physical exercise: Renaissance readers were known to use a book-wheel. (Though how common they were is in some dispute) This device, to quote Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine in their seminal article '"Studied for Action': How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy':

... enabled its user to lay out on flat surfaces as many books as he might choose, to move them as he needed them without losing his places, and to stop at any selected text — thanks to the cog-wheels
One would have
60 or 70 portions out of large volumes, open, not counting the tiny ones. You sit and with your hand you bring portions of these large volumes before you three at a time. To put it in a nutshell, you can make a whole study revolve, and so easily that it is a delightful exercise. (Grafton and Jardine, p. 46)
All of this has led me to reconsider the relationship I have with my books. I am now more conscious of reading as a physical act: that in reading, I am not merely dealing with Platonised thoughts in some superlunary realm. One feels the quality and texture of paper, one appreciates typefaces, one is affected by light and shade. I've now taken to doing something I once refused to do, and that is to mark books -- annotating, underlining and writing on the margins. To regard the book as sacrosanct is superstition. One keeps a book in good condition in order to preserve it for future readings or for passing it on or down. But ultimately, books are our objects, meant to make us better people. To venerate them is idolatry, a misordering of means and ends. In leaving marks on my books, I take joy in creating a record of use, of historical evidence of reading. One can start making history in this small way, while hoping to move on to greater things. It is also a one-man protest against the cheapening of things, against the mass production of ever-proliferating objects: by marking books, I make them inimitably and undeniably my own.


Maddie, as you'll see in the comments below, has asked me about e-book readers (or e-readers). In one of those moments of strange clairvoyance, she has hit upon some thoughts on them that I cut out of my original post. Such coincidence demands that I replace them here. I think most of the arguments against e-readers are derived from contemptible, thoughtless reaction. But the inability to interact with the e-book in quite the same way as one would with the physical copy is, I think, a regrettable loss, and one to be ardently resisted. My guess is that both forms will exist side-by-side in the future. But that is a worthless prognostication. 


  1. I guess from this that you lament the idea of the Kindle and other e-Readers? Or do you think they have their place too (in encouraging more people to read etc.)?

    1. What ho, Maddie! Startlingly good of you to comment. Yes, you must have read my mind: I was going to add a note about how this could be one novel argument against the e-reader. They simply don't allow you to interact, physically, with the book in the same way. One cannot freely annotate, nor write in the margins. But I don't decry technological advances, and I suspect the rise of the e-reader will be proven to be a good thing. But I'm going to stick to books, out of sheer bloody-mindedness and principle.

  2. Isn't the issue with ebooks more about content? Ie. you buy potboiler novels on ebooks because once you read them you would ordinarily not be bothered about keeping them. In this sense ebooks are the Penguins of today. I think Orwell, in "Books v Cigarettes", discusses the issue of throwaway Penguins at length. No doubt he can say infinitely more about it than I can.

    1. That's fair enough, assuming one can really make that sort of distinction. I imagine, for example, that Agatha Christie would have fallen into that category. But I would definitely want to have every single one of her novels in book form.