Monday, 20 December 2010

Feel Good Books: The Spectator on 'Ravilious in Pictures'

There's a lot of discussion in the publishing world about the future of books. For fiction lovers Amazon is pushing its Kindle as if it were going out of fashion, while Apple's iPad offers some exciting possibilities for the non-fiction picture book.

Lorna Sage
I had an argument in the mid-1990s with Lorna Sage, who was my supervisor for an MA thesis in Modernism at the University of East Anglia. She was the reader's reader, a devourer of books, and she didn't take kindly to the last chapter of my thesis, which was rather pretentiously titled 'The Birth of Hyperfiction and the Death of the Book'. My thesis was about the work of American novelist Robert Coover, who had, since 1991, been involved in a project at Brown University, Rhode Island, which went under the name 'The Hypertext Hotel'.

Coover's aim was to escape from the limitations of the printed book with its bound pages, and he found a kind of formal freedom in a collaborative process whereby different writers fed into a text made up of discrete, connected sections. Anyway, he was quite happy about this and prophesied that the future of books lay in hyperspace rather than the bookshop, but Lorna wasn't keen. Books had been central to her career and her life - books as objects as well as texts - and she did not respond well to the prospect of their demise.

If she were still alive I don't think she'd be a fan of Kindle, but it is no doubt here to stay. And why not? What's wrong with having a portable device with a hundred or a thousand books embedded within it, rather than a stack of mass-produced paperbacks? Similarly, I think the prospect of interactive 'books', ie iPad or iPhone apps, is exciting.

But we need to be aware of what we lose by going digital in our reading. Downloading music is not the same as listening to a record or a CD, and there is to my mind less pleasure to be had in the music itself when you take away the rituals of visiting the record store, leafing through covers known and not known, making a choice, then, once home, removing the record (CDs have never been as much fun) from its sleeve and studying the sleeve notes as the record starts up.

As a child I could spend hours in a bookshop, a 50p book token in my pocket, exploring authors known and unknown, feeling the different shapes and weights of books by Arthur Ransome or CS Lewis or Malcolm Saville. A big hardback book on cricket or exotic animals offered luxurious pleasures: glossy paper that smelled of ink, an almost endless succession of pages, colour pictures... My mother has books on her shelf that were her Christmas treats more than half a century ago - I can't imagine anything computer-based lasting five years let alone fifty.

So I enjoyed this recent post by Emily Rhodes on the Spectator's Arts Blog, in which she did the opposite of 99% of book reviewers and focused on books produced by small publishers rather than corporate giants. It is a curious fact of life in an age of endless media coverage that a tiny number of books get all the attention - as technology proliferates so our intellectual horizons shrink - and as someone who has books published by small (but perfectly formed) publishing companies I was happy to see Emily choose one of mine for inclusion in the season's most imaginative Top Ten Books.

'Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings' (Mainstone Press) was designed, like its predecessor, to be enjoyed as a thing of beauty and, happily, this is why Emily chose it and another nine books including 'Visitation' by Jenny Erpenbeck (Portobello Books) and 'The Local' by Maurice Gorham, which is published under the fabulous new Dovecote Press imprint, Toller Books. She writes:

These books long to be touched, stroked and unfurled in a way for which a cold grey screen will never be able to compensate. Some of them want to lie ostentatiously on a coffee table, others beg to be slipped into a pocket; some would be happiest lined up as part of a set, others stand proudly alone. I love what is written inside each one of these books, but, moreover, I have adored the process of reading them, from the first touch of the cover, through opening them and revealing such treats as idiosyncratic endpapers, thick paper and perfect illustrations, to closing them, full of admiration, at the end.


  1. Well, you were ahead of the game in understanding that new technologies would free up new artistic possibilities as well as close up others. Your comments on Coover made me think of the English writer B. S. Johnson, whose 1969 novel The Unfortunates was published as a collection of unbound signatures in a box, to be randomly read by the reader (well, not quite randomly, as one is definitely the first. and another the last). I imagine Johnson would have leapt at the chances offered to him by the internet. Has any new writer stepped up to the plate? The only great new artist I'm aware of to have used the internet as a platform for creation rather than publicity is the Romanian photographer Roxana Ghita. But some writer out there must be planning the virtual literary revolution.

  2. Not sure I was ahead of the game, but it was fun exploring Coover's ideas - you're spot on with BS Johnson, who would have enjoyed the internet. Well, possibly. I'm not sure he was the enjoying type...

    I don't know which writers use the internet as Coover suggested, though I've no doubt some do. Virtual worlds and games are the cultural forms of the internet...