|HAS THE BOOK A
by Ted Honderich
Frome, pronounced 'Froom' by we of the west of England, is an ancient town on the other side of Stonehenge from London, in the county of Somerset. It appears to have been in economic decline since about the end of the Napoleonic Wars, during which it provided a lot of cloth for uniforms. It had seditious weavers in it, and it still has the merit of not being entirely genteel and done-up. You do not get the impression, as in some neighbouring places, that the sunny Bath stone of the better houses and the Dissenters' chapels has been sprayed with a coat of plastic preservative. Nor does the town have a pop festival, which it leaves to its mythic neighbour Glastonbury. Frome does have a good printer of many books, Butler & Tanner, and a decent bookshop, The Hunting Raven. It also has an annual celebration, The Frome Festival. During a week of July, it engages in all manner of things, beginning with foreign nosh from booths in the Market Square. The East African was very good this year. There was also an exquisite fortepiano concert by Sharona Joshua that proved there is nothing greater than Mozart. There were literary occasions too, including a meeting in the library on whether the book has a future. I was among the givers of answers -- as this paragraph which you are reading reported in introduction to my answer when it was given again on the world-wide web.
What's a book? Well, you can say it's a printed or written work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers. That's a book in the ordinary sense, the Butler & Tanner or Hunting Raven sense. The thing costs £15 if you're lucky. It's also, as we say, a copy of a book, a copy of something else.
So there's also another thing called a book. It will still exist in a certain eventuality you can think about.
Take the example of Trollope's The Way We Live Now . Suppose it doesn't just happen that new copies have a comic-book colour-photo from a telly series on the front. Suppose things get a lot worse. As America becomes more truly our Rome, an American president of no notable literacy becomes more truly an Emperor, and, having been told by a favoured secretary of the contents of The Way We Live Now, decrees there will be no more copies of it. Given the diligence with which the search-and-destroy mission he orders is carried forward, what may be a cultural catastrophe is accomplished. It comes about that there are no more copies at all in the ordinary sense, new or old, of Trollope's work -- no more books on pages sewn together.
But it also happens, thanks to a rural pocket of dissident technology, perhaps in our own green hills, that The Way We Live Now has, as we say, been digitized. You can get it -- every word of it, just as written by Trollope with no subtractions or additions, which is important -- on a floppy disk or a CD or on the web. Or the whole thing may be in a silicon chip to put into a little hand-held screen to read on the train or in bed. Rome worships Technology as well as God, so suppose the President relents, and the little hand-held screens containing the Trollope are allowed to persist.
It's natural to say that in such an eventuality as this the book still exists. You could say the book still exists in the important sense. You could say, with that petty audacity so natural to the philosophical personality, that the book still exists in the real sense. I'll say that -- the real sense.
Suppose we now want to add something to the definition of a book in either the ordinary sense or the real sense. Suppose we want to get a little classy. What separates an ordinary book or a real book from a pamphlet, short story, essay, article, or magisterial report in The Guardian ? What separates an ordinary or real book from a condensed or abbreviated or Reader's Digest book? Or from anything in a woman's or man's or any other magazine? Or from anything you get on the telly, from the soaps right up through the news at 7 to the best hour-long documentaries?
We need a name for this other stuff. Let us call it 'the other stuff'.
What separates the books from the other stuff? Well, maybe three things.
A book is of a certain decent length. At least as long as a thin Penguin. Say 30,000 words. So it has tremendously more information in it. Tremendously more experience or perception or logic or anything else that can be put into language. Is that length of at least 30,000 words fixed by some fact about us other than what we find convenient to carry around? Is it a fact about reality or minds as distinct from manageable weight? Does human and other reality come in pieces, subject-blocks, such that an intelligent account of one of them takes at least 30,000 words? Could be.
The second thing about a book is that it's original . Somebody made it up or thought it out or found it out. They didn't copy it, or they didn't copy too much, and it's not just news. Also, they didn't have to do this or that with it to suit some kind of demand different from the demands on a real author. John Milton said a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. I have the feeling, from authors I have known, that he was pushing it a little, but no doubt what he went a little beyond is an arguable proposition.
You'll be relieved to hear that I haven't lost all touch with what passes for reality, and that I do concede that a lot of the other stuff can be original too. But it may be that there is a kind of originality of a thing that requires scale. Room for work. 30,000 words or more. Anyway, if I can't persuade you of that, there's something else that separates a book from all the other stuff.
This third thing that needs to be said is the worst, but I've got to stand up and say it. If you can't say it here in a library, where can you say it? Books are better in general than the other stuff, wonderfully better, even the respectable other stuff. More goes into books, and you get more out of them. The people who are best at a certain sort of thing, which is thinking, choose to write books rather than the other stuff. Maybe it's because they're more challenged by the job. Maybe it's because of that fact about reality being in subject-blocks that call out for at least a book.
I'd better add, since some of you may be of an alternative life-style based in Glastonbury, and thus officially opposed to ordinary pomp, and too much mind as against spirit, that my thinkers certainly include men and women of the people, and the whole class of autodidactic authors, and some dyslexics. My thinkers produce not only elevated and maybe elevating works but also detective novels, thrillers, romantic fiction from Mills & Boone, full instruction manuals for the Ford Zephyr, some dirty books, manuals from business consultants about motivating people and getting rich, religious books, and even books celebrating the atheist tradition of Conservatism in politics, such as the good one by my friend the Lord Quinton. Even sociological rambles from the L.S.E. defining the Third Way one more time for the help of Mr. Blair.
Now to two questions.
Do books in the ordinary sense have a future? Is there hope, that is, for the printed or written pages glued or sewn together on one side and in a cover -- and 30,000 words or more in length, and original, and better than the other stuff?
One answer is that Washington will fall as Rome fell, and other things will change for better or worse, but copies of books will be kicking around forever, or anyway for the foreseeable. It's a help that they furnish a room. Also that old ones turn up in pricey auction houses, and that you can improve even your street cred by having one or two, anyway Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Ordinary books will be saved by interior decorators, investors and self-imagers if no one else. They'll also be saved because a lot of our digitalizing capability will concentrate on the other stuff.
Of course these books in the ordinary sense may not be read much anymore -- it may be that there'll mainly be the little hand-held screens with the chips in them. Maybe for £1.99 more you'll be able to buy a screen with the smell of new paper. Maybe £2.99 more for old paper. Another quid for a good font, maybe Caston Old Face. A little more for stanzas of poetry standing on the screen the way they stood on the page.
On the other hand, the good thinking we prize is attached for us to printed or written pages glued or sewn together on one side and in a cover. Those common objects are gilded by the history of the thinking. Their smells and heft, by which I mean smells and hefts made by them, not the same smells and hefts made by something else, are qualities made different by their long connection with that thinking, a best thing in life. So maybe people will go on reading ordinary books.
But enough of the first question. The second one is not about books in the ordinary sense but the real books. Do books in the real sense have a future? Books in the sense such that there is but one book that is The Way We Live Now? Whether on paper or in chips or whatever? I'm more interested in this question. The short answer is a reassurance to all novel-consumers, academicals, librarians, publishers, my fellow-scribblers, reviewers, puffers, agents, alternative persons of Glastonbury in their dirndled dignity pondering those works on ley lines, and readers in general. The short answer is that real books sure do have a future, and that it's a lovely fact.
Do you say that the tide of the other stuff been rising? I guess so, and maybe it will continue to rise. I don't know what to put this down to. Maybe not crazy ideas about learning without working in the 1960's, or to comprehensive schools, but to educational and much other unfairness compounded by commercialization, and such media as the Murdoch media, and what is sometimes still known as capitalism.
But if the tide of other stuff is rising, it won't sink the real books, for a real reason, touched on already.
I've heard it said by somebody, maybe me, that there will be Left Wing politics forever, as distinct from New Labour, because of two permanent facts about us. One is that we all have strong desires for large things, say freedom in its various forms, and the other is that in the end almost all of us can all see through shams.
You can add to that the permanent fact that we can all think, and, as should be added, feel, and that we can do them better with practice, whether or not at a university. And so there will always be books in the real sense. There will be because they are things of greatest value for thinking and feeling. There will always be novels and histories, and with a little luck philosophy books, and all those other books that my rightful tolerance encompasses.
You can prove this future to yourself, as I did, by reminding yourself of the value of books to thinking and feeling. Look at the titles in a sample bookcase, any half-decent bookcase, and remember the reading of the books, or just remember words by people who read them.
You may indeed see before you The Way We Live Now , so infinitely superior to the telly series. In the book, true to the whole intention of the thing thought-out by the author, and indeed true to the implication of the title itself, the American railway doesn't get built by the unspeakable financial speculators. It does get built on the telly for the edification of American viewers. And on the telly an honourable man disappears towards the end of the story, no doubt because old honour was thought to be unbelievable. And the anti-Semitism contemplated in the book, and which character is Jewish, gets changed on the telly by the jerk who messed around with it all.
You might see Scoop in the bookcase too. Evelyn Waugh. Not my politics, but wonderful. In my bit of research, I didn't have time to take it down and open it, but I hope memory isn't playing me false. It begins in Somerset, doesn't it, with lovely stuff by William the country diarist about the plashy fens? You can remember a book without remembering much of it. This one leaves the happy recollection of laughter in what my Ingrid knows as my soul.
There's also Language, Truth and Logic, by A. J. Ayer. Our own English bible of Logical Positivism. This bible says that the only utterances that are true or false are either ones that can be verified by sense experience or else ones that are necessarily true or false just by meaning alone -- 'All bachelors are unmarried' and `That circle is a square'. No other sorts of utterances come up to the level of being true or false. And so religious and ethical utterances, being of neither kind, do not even have the importance of being false.
That book brought me to England, settled my life. If I don't quite believe it any more, it's as lovely as Scoop. The loveliness of lucid confidence in a good idea that nearly works out. An idea on the way to a truth that you can't quite get straight.
There's the biography of Darwin too, the one that shows us so sadly that the author himself of The Origin of Species preferred his own Anglican respectability to the theory of evolution until somebody else worked it out too. There are books of local history as well, Frome history. See any of Mr. Michael McGarvie's works, and Mr. Derek Gill's. And Journey Up The Thames, about William Morris, by John Payne over there giving out the statutory white wine for this intellectual occasion. Brand new local books too, like those bracing novels read from in this room the other night. Alison Clink's. The lady's novel has certainly come on.
As I say, the fact of thinking and feeling, doing it better with practice, won't go away. And so what they issue in and what they are bound up with, real books, won't go away either. You've only got to remind yourself of their value. The future's firm as Stonehenge. Keep cool, sweethearts, keep cool.
For a glance at life before Frome, turn to Goodbye to All That Hampstead.