Monday, November 30, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Dear reader, I wish you to consider a topic which I rarely address on this blog.
It is the matter of books as physical objects.
I am not a hunter of precious first editions, and I am not rich enough to have such a hobby anyway.
I am happy to read good books in cheap and serviceable editions, so long as they have been proof-read properly and are not littered with literals. More than anything, I am interested in the text of the book itself, and not in the finer points of its physical production – although I do appreciate well-manufactured books when I see them.
And yet I am fully aware that the physical object with words printed in it does influence the way one responds to the text.
I have just been considering Richard Hughes’ masterpiece A High Wind in Jamaica, and as usual, I have illustrated my notice with images of well-preserved dust-jackets from first editions of the novel.
But I did not read the novel in these fine editions.
First I went to the shelf where my battered, ancient and hitherto unread-by-me ex-library copy of the novel sat between an ex-library copy of some of Walter de la Mare’s short stories and a very, very battered old Penguin copy of Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains.
I was consciously resurrecting something from the dead of unread books.

I lay the book on a dusty desk, and photographed its battered, paint-splashed, dust-jacket-less ex-library cover. How many decades was it since somebody with a paint-stained thumb took if off a shelf?

I opened the book, and found inside the front cover the place where an old Auckland Public Libraries pocket (the type that held one of those cards that used to get stamped when books were borrowed) had been ripped out. I was going to read something that had once been read by many borrowers.

I went to the title page and noted that this was an English re-print dating from 1947, eighteen years after the novel was first published. That’s 67 years ago. It would, I guess, have been withdrawn from the shelves after about ten years hard use, so this copy went out of circulation over half a century ago.

Then I went to some of the inside pages, foxed and the worse for wear, with one of them bearing what looked like the stain of a long-ago spilt drink. Was some reader in, say, 1957, so excited by the novel that she spilt a drink over the page? Or did the cup fall from her hand as she nodded off to sleep?

And you see, all these thoughts buzzed through my head before I settled down and started reading.
The physical object in my hands reminded me that this novel was something old and much-read, in a way that a re-print from last year would not have done.
I felt a kinship with earlier readers of the book.
I felt also an odd sense of virtue in reading the novel in this particular copy. I was putting something old to good use. I was not discarding it because it was old. I reflected that many forests would be saved, and many re-prints rendered unnecessary, if existing old editions of novels were actually used rather than being tossed away or burnt.
I thought how much the feel and look of books do influence our appreciation of them. Most people understand this instinctively. A few years back, wiseacres were saying that Kindle and other such apps would render the printed book obsolete. The attraction of holding a whole library in something little bigger than a modest magazine was a very powerful one. And yet, within the last few years we have heard of a reaction against Kindle and its ilk. “Peak penetration” seemed to have been reached, and readers are going back to books in printed form.
Back, in other words, to real books with their feel and weight and texture and – if they are old – evidences of previous use.

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