Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Can You Feast on Books?

Food magnets in Little Italy, New York.
Photo by su-lin

There was a photo from this year’s Hay-on-Wye literary festival, which showed a banner strung across the street saying ‘Kindle free zone’. I know that some 15C observers had anxieties about the arrival of the printed book (the fate of scribes and scriptoria, the perceived non-durability of printed pages), but I wonder if the products of the early printing industry were ever actively boycotted, on ideological grounds, by manuscript lovers in quite the same way that e-readers are now.

All this talk about the printed ink-and-paper book as seriously endangered has made me increasingly sensitive to the sensory experience of dealing with ‘real’ (‘traditional’?) books. This week, I received a number of publishers’ catalogues in the post and it was like ripping open envelopes to look at catalogues of toys – they have evocative and idiosyncratic historical pictures on their covers (an early modern fleet in a mountainous harbour, a golden city). Inside, dozens and dozens of goodies are set out, colourful miniature book covers, hundreds of little windows on the past. The experience of browsing a catalogue, or the contents page of a book you’ve long wanted to read, reminds me of perusing a restaurant menu – the extent of choice and possibility is exciting, there is lots of anticipation, and you half-scan for things you already know you like (pineapple, sesame seeds… early modern zoology, woodcuts, Jagiellonians). With books, there is the certainty that you can’t order, read or remember everything; that you can only select prize pickings from this cornucopia of knowledge. I recently decided to bring myself up to date with the most recent Reformation historiography by ordering a big box of books from Amazon. Opening them was like breaking open a hamper of gourmet goodies, but the real enjoyment came from then spreading them out, like a mosaic, on the coffee table in my Somerville room, from the way the light catches on their glossy covers, and the heady smell of fresh ink.

In a new book, Stephen Poole claims that we fetishise food too much; perhaps we are guilty of the same with printed books. But if they do end up going the way of medieval illuminated manuscripts, becoming a tiny luxury market for the moneyed connoisseur, we may as well enjoy the colours, smells and comforting feel of shiny paper under our fingers while we still can.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy the experience of 'real' books, which is why I bought my Christmas presents in bookshops this year. But I think it's possible for book lovers to have a healthy appreciation of both printed and e-books, without the exclusion of either: