Fewer Websites, More Waterstones – A Defence of Physical Print | Ewan Gillings
In an age of the internet, online publications, and Kindles, the humble book appears to be an entity that has lost its place. Seemingly unable to compete with the practicality of the phone, the instantaneous access of blogs, or the “philosophy” of Jeremy Corbyn, it has ceased to be the integral part of human progress that it once was. It is no exaggeration to claim that the invention of the printing press was one of the most significant moments in human development; the ability to mass produce information and ideas for public consumption on a supply and demand basis was integral to much of the political, religious, and social remoulding of the late medieval and early modern era. The fact that the book no longer fulfils this role is a real shame. The book not only serves a practical purpose – the transfer of knowledge, ideas, beliefs – but it also serves a theoretical one. This is the value they hold as distinct items, be it sentimental, or even financial. People keep books from their childhood, and read them to their children; family books, such as Bibles, are kept and handed down through the generations. They connect people with what has come before them. This will never be the case with other forms of text; no one in 30 or so years will be handed a Kindle and told ‘this is what your mother and I read Harry Potter to you on.’
This all relates to the character that a book possesses, and character that, much like a fine wine, grows, matures, and develops with age. Of course, the charm of an aged and rugged book is hard to resist. But there is character too, I hope you’ll agree, in the fresh and new publication, spine unbroken, contents as of yet withheld. Every aspect of the published book adds to its character. The physical size of it, the font, the material, and especially the cover. All of these add a personality beyond count. I think this is best exemplified by the excellent Folio Society publications. This hardbacks are beautiful objects; they are great examples of devotion and dedication in printing. It is clear that the words contained in these books are deemed – in this case by a notable society – to be important and seminal. It gives them authority, credence. This is something that cannot be matched through the dull glow of a screen.
And as one admires a book, one’s eye extends side of it, above and below. The bookshelf is not simply a storage facility; it is a display, an exhibition of knowledge, a bastion of ideas. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then a bookshelf is an armoury. The idea of choosing a book, and sitting down to enjoy it for even a short period of time, is something so fundamental to us that we see it as a crucial idea to instil in our children; the ability to read, and to read well, is something that society deems to be of paramount importance in our lives. The idyllic image of someone reclining in the armchair, novel in one hand and whiskey in the other, stems from a desire – ever increasing as a result of modernity – to step back, and appreciate the simpler things. One is not struck with the same nostalgic and idyllic thoughts when confronted with the necessity to spend all day in front of a screen.
The printed work also shows a dedication and investment to the ideas contain within. Putting something only online is not the same as printing it – to spend money and a significant amount of time to not only produce a printed document, but also design and market it in such a way as to make it a beautiful object which people want to spend their money on (for example, the aforementioned Folio Society books), shows that the publisher truly believes in and respects the words held within. In an increasingly here today, gone tomorrow world, the continuous physical presence of books is a timely reminder that, like architectural beauty, some things are objectively worth preserving and producing.
To conclude, then, the printed word is so much more than ink and paper. It is a historical microcosm, a palpable glimpse into the life of the author. Even modern books have a certain charm about them; they show that a publisher took the words of the author seriously enough to warrant an investment in them. They allow for wonderful shops such as Waterstones to thrive – a real-life Wikipedia, containing nearly every idea and discovery that humans have ever formulated or made. The printed word gives something back to its reader; it is something that, even after it has been digested and enjoyed, can be collected and kept, given out to friends and family in the hopes that they can enjoy its contents as you once did. Reading a book simultaneously relaxes and strengthens the mind, without tiring the eye via the hue of a screen. If we want more people interested in literature, in the culture and contents of the written word, and even in our wider history, then we need fewer websites, and more Waterstones.
Photo by Dan Mountain.