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Sunday 22 February 2009

Books Do Furnish a Room...

...in a way that DVD or video cases don't. If you're in in any doubt about it, just look at the backgrounds in at-home TV interviews. I think it's something tied in with the physical objects themselves, not just with the intellectual life they represent. A shelfload of shabby old middlebrow novels is way more aesthetically pleasing than one loaded with the finest foreign-language Criterion DVDs.

A friend of mine recently expressed dismay at an LA Times story about an interior designer who'd urged his client to store all his CDs in wallets and discard the cases. But I kiiiiiiiiiind of get what's going on there... I've taken a small step in that direction myself.

Every year I get sent a bunch of awards screeners on DVD. They're produced and packaged exactly like commercial releases but they can't legally be passed on or sold. For the ones I want to keep I discard the cases, number the discs, add the info to my database, and file them. One shoebox-sized container from PC World holds a couple of hundred movies.

Which, of course, frees up my shelf space for books.

The only thing that's kept me from doing the same with the bulk of my retail-bought DVDs is the lingering notion that the packaging is part of the 'value'. But most of the time, it isn't - they're just all-purpose cases with a cheap paper insert, and the only real reason to keep the packaging is for resale purposes. With some DVDs the packaging is a part of the pleasure - my King Kong in a tin box, my Forbidden Planet special edition with a wee Robbie Robot - but 90% of the time, not.

When CDs first came onto the market they sold at a huge premium because those hi-tech shiny discs looked so much like a luxury purchase. But when we started buying blanks and realised that the discs themselves were only worth pennies, I think a process began where in our hearts we started to unshackle digital content from the material of the medium that delivers it.

I'm now thinking that when a suitably capacious storage medium comes along, I can transfer each shoebox of 200 titles onto one disc (or its future equivalent) - 200 unaltered viewing experiences (my TV doesn't care where the data comes from), even more space for books.

I wouldn't apply it to my books. The idea of ripping the covers off to make more room... aieee. It makes my toes curl. For me every one of my books is a "King Kong in a tin".

That's why I have five different editions of The Lost World... a well-handled first, the Pilot and Rodin annotated edition, a '30s Hodder & Stoughton hardcover, a children's paperback, and the Professor Challenger Omnibus in which I first read the tale. If only the text mattered, then any one of those would do. Or I could junk them all and download the words from Gutenberg. But each of them carries a different charge, of association and of the era when it was published. Each one is a different performance of the text.

E-books, though... you download them, you store them on one drive or another, you move them around, you copy them to your device... they never have any physical form at all. The notion of keeping and displaying the cases never arises.

E-books will never replace books. Just most of them.

More than a decade ago Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine wrote of the entertainment industry's struggle to comprehend that their future was in selling bytes, not atoms. By which he meant that they were all about manufacturing and shipping and had no strategy for handling their product in a non-material form.

It's taking a while. But I'd say we're going there.


In the comments section, Gail Renard asks: "Go on. What books would you take with you on a desert island?"


My desert island book would be E V Rieu's prose translation of The Odyssey, the one published by Penguin in the 60s. For me it's got everything. It's a brilliant structure, epic in ambition but always character-centred, and the most amazing heroic/romantic finale. Rieu's prose is plain, elegant and lucid. In the current Penguin edition Rieu's son has improved on the translation, at the expense of the writing. So I'll take one of my two old copies.

(I'd love a nice old hardcover, but... the only hardback edition I ever see is the tarted-up and unprepossessing version put out by the Folio Society, whose books I dislike a LOT).

After that... probably the collected short stories of HG Wells, that nice fat little Benn hardcover that starts with The Time Machine and then collects all the short fiction, including the achingly beautiful The Door in the Wall.


Gail Renard said...

Go on. What books would you take with you on a desert island?

Stephen Gallagher said...

I started to answer... and then reckoned it would be worth adding an update to the main post.

So that's where you'll find it...

Lee said...

Timely post - I've just started reading Rieu's translation of The Iliad, in a lovely brown paperback published in 1950 and priced at an eye-watering two and six.

Good Dog said...

And I’ve just finished reading The Time Machine... Having recently jumped the gun on a Spring clean, I was staggered by the prices of some of the books that came down off the shelves. Although the worrying thing was I couldn’t find my wonderful little pocket book edition of Bradbury’s The Silver Locusts. It should have been right next to the Dell First Edition of Jack Finney’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (35c cover price). Fingers crossed it’s in one of the boxes stacked in the storage cupboard at the back of the flat.

Actually, there’s a word that splits the generations. Mention the word Dell now and the youngsters immediately think of computers.

Also worrying, I mentioned at the beginning of a post that I was about to read Neal Stephenson’s excellent Cryptonomincon for the fourth time. It elicited the comment, why would I read a book four times? How do you answer a question like that?

Gail Renard said...

Of course you read a favourite book four times, or many more times if truth be known. It's like revisiting a trusted beloved old friend whom you learn more about each time. There are certain books I re-read about once every two to three years and relish them every time.

Your Desert Island choices are fascinating, Stephen. For some reason, I've always thought I'd take a bit of an idealised Britain which no longer exists (if ever it did:) my hardcover Doubleday Sherlock Holmes omnibus and also, surprisingly enough, The Forsyte Saga omnibus. Add some John Donne poems and a few coconuts and that's my lot!