I want to share this picture with you.
I know it doesn’t inspire. A dog-eared, thumbed-to-bits volume with its spine all but destroyed, its covers stained with use. In resale terms it would be lucky to get a bid at an auction, or even a second glance.
Kipling’s ‘Animal Stories’ sits among the other volumes on my bookshelf. In a day I might pass it by many times, reluctant, almost, to disturb it in its age; because once it was never given time to rest – never closed, never far from my pillow. It taught me to read when, at maybe three or four years old I learned the first magic: it sang me to sleep when my mother read from it, it showed me pictures of other lands, other worlds for my imagination to ride upon.
Through his pen, the writer taught me love and respect for the wild creatures around me. He gave nobility to the elephant, cunning to the tiger, valour to the mongoose, loyalty to the wolf. Those creatures are as real to me now as the first evening when ‘The White Seal’ swam into my mind, or when Rikki-Tikki-Tavi first faced a cobra on the veranda of my dreams. The simple morality they taught has lasted with me.
Upon the flyleaf of this tattered book there is a pencilled note. It says, simply: ‘To Joan, from Uncle, Xmas 1935’. Joan was my mother.
So there it sits amidst the company of its fellow volumes – some as old, some much younger than itself, evoking memories of someone passed who must, in her time, have valued it as much as I. And it has travelled with me through my life as once it guided her through hers; and when my life closes? Who knows what then?
The tablet of my current ‘reads’ glimmers back at me: ‘Dombey and Son’, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. The pages are easily wiped across the screen, the words are any size I want, my vast library of titles has no need of shelves. This is progress. But they will last, these current thousand, for how long? Their flyleaves bear no treasured mark, there is no familiar paper smell and when my tablet has run its course a year or so hence they will leave as swiftly as they came.
When we lament the passing of the printed word, you see, I believe we make a basic error – a mistake. We revile the computer for stabbing our paper fantasies in the back when really the paper fantasies themselves sealed their doom. The blame truly lies with the throw-away, the paperback.
In pushing up the hardback price beyond the common reader’s means publishers let paperbacks in, but more than that, they changed the role of the book in the home, in a reader’s life. Few unbound books will survive as ‘Animal Stories’ has, or support such enticing insights into family history. Few will live on bookshelves or decorate our homes because they simply do not look nice; they will circulate a few times, in charity shops or care homes maybe, then be consigned to the dustbin of history.
The writer’s art has become as impermanent as the actor’s. So if you are riffling through the titles of today seeking the classics of tomorrow seek no more. The onward march of software will leave each one behind. There will be no survivors.