E-books are going to win. Anyone who’s seen a bus or a train carriage or a café lately knows that: Kindles everywhere, as though they’re breeding. And that’s as it should be. Stand in the way of convenient technology which people want, and you’re in the same position as every refusenik from the Luddites to the newspaper unions of the 1980s. But before the printed book takes its final bow, and retreats to its status as endearing novelty, let’s take a look at the sort of experience we’re going to miss.
A friend recently came across a single volume from an 18th century Spectator series, and knowing of my scribblings for said organ and its website, gave me the book as a present. A little detective work among the dealers in London’s Cecil Court put the leather-bound beauty somewhere in the 1780s. (A full set of eight was going for £160 — my lonely soldier, of course, is worthless.) The collection is of the original Spectator essays produced daily between 1711 and 1714 by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, from which the current magazine (d.o.b. 1828) takes its name. Mine is Volume the Second, containing the essays from June 2nd to September 13th 1711. It measures seven inches by four, the spine is cracked, and if Chanel ever want to create a perfume called ‘Stale Dust’ they need look no further than these pages for inspiration. At some point in the last couple of centuries — nearer 1780 than 2012, by the way the ink has faded — the book has been owned by a person who split up almost every paragraph with forward-slashes between certain sentences. Occasionally the marks occur mid-sentence. My best guess is that they’re breathing points. Did the owner recite the essays in the privacy of his room, pretending that he (something tells me it was a he) had penned them himself? Was this the 19th century equivalent of air guitar?
The content echoes, as great writing always does, down the ages, a reminder that details change but fundamental truths are timeless. ‘Our gentry are, generally speaking, in debt,’ wrote Steele on June 5th, ‘and many families have put it into a kind of method of being so from generation to generation.’ (Actually he wrote ‘fpeaking’ and ‘fo’, but I’ll spare you the period accuracy.) A few days later Addison points out that ‘a great deal of knowledge, which is not capable of making a man wise, has a natural tendency to make him vain and arrogant.’ Metrosexuality, it seems, was always with us: ‘A Woman’s Man … is not at a loss what is good for a cold.’ And debates on education haven’t changed much either: ‘Let the child’s capacity be forthwith examined, and be sent to some mechanic way of life, without respect to his birth, if nature designed him for nothing higher: let him go before … he is debased into a dereliction of mind for being what it is no guilt to be, a plain man.’
The details that have altered can be fascinating. The Bastille, for example, is mentioned as just an ordinary prison, this being several decades before its starring role in the French Revolution. And the occasional gem of historical trivia surfaces. Alexander the Great ‘buried several suits of armour, which by his directions were made much too big for any of his soldiers, in order to give posterity an extraordinary idea of him, and make them believe he had commanded an army of giants’. As ever the joy of a piece of knowledge lies in the connections it sparks: this reference from two millennia ago, in an essay from three centuries ago, reminded me both of Churchill during World War II — he ordered that the specially-large condoms proposed to keep gun-barrels dry be labelled ‘British: Small’, to awe any Germans who captured them — and of the mighty darts commentator Sid Waddell, who once shouted: ‘When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer — Eric Bristow is only 27!’
And yes, all this content could be downloaded onto an e-reader and have the same intellectual effect. But not the same emotional punch. As I read the book I keep thinking about that previous owner, his tiny ink marks stubbornly in place, a record of how he tackled that content and what it meant to him, all the more touching for being (possibly) unhinged and (certainly) intense? The experience has felt like a three-way conversation across the centuries, its participants arriving from 1711, 2012 and an undefined date somewhere in between. Pixels just can’t do that for you.