The End Is Near. Is It?
What exactly is the role of the book today in our modern bookshelves?
There’s a lot of talk going on these days about ebooks and epublishing and how that might end the book. Perhaps it will. My guess is that it won’t. You will note that I say ‘I guess’. I am not stupid. I don’t think you can say anything about the future without getting it badly wrong. After all, there was the gentleman in the British Stock Exchange who said that they did not need telephones because they had plenty of runners. I was being lazy. I Googled ‘British remark phones not needed’ and landed upon the quote I was looking for.
“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” – Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office, 1876.
I didn’t have to get up. If you had told me this would be possible when I was a lad of twenty, I would have said: “The Americans might have need of such a device. We have plenty of dictionaries of quotations.” Which is where I read the quote in the first place.
So let’s start again. I think we’ll have books for a long time in book form because books decorate a room. I remember visiting my friend J in London. J had given up academia after getting her MA from SOAS and a BA in clowning. (I’m not joking. She did. In Canada.) She was then living in East London, not far from Brick Lane. When I entered her modest accommodation, she said, “I’m beginning to have middle-class guilt about not having enough books.”
I found that terrifyingly sophisticated. I said something about quality not quantity but I was not fooling her or myself. For the few days I lived there, I was in constant terror of running out of things to read simply because she had only one bookstand of books. I kept reassuring myself that I hadn’t read at least a dozen of these and this would last me through the week but I was still worried. Later I realized a deeper snobbery was at work. Could she be my friend if those were the only books she had?
I’m older now and weary of my earlier selves, even if I relentlessly inflict them on my readers. I no longer judge people by their bookshelves. In fact, I’ve stopped judging me by my bookshelves. There was a time though…
And then there’s the book as an object of fetish. I’m not only talking about the rare book trade about which there are a million stupid notions. I don’t know how many times friends have brought me books and said, “That’s more than a hundred years old.” I smile and try and treat the book with care but I know that the chances are it’s worth a few hundred rupees, if at all, in the international market. India is not kind to books. Our weather damages them even if we don’t. Our insects love them even if we throw them into heaps at the raddiwala. Each dog ear, each tear, each cellotaping, each name entered into the book, reduces its value a little more. Eventually, that hundred-year-old book is worth about as much as anything else that is hundred years old and not rare.
The book has been turned into a cultural icon of sorts because we have been able to own books for nearly a hundred years now. Art? That’s still a rarity. Most people make do with what they call scene-scenery or god-photos or family photographs on their walls. Films? You couldn’t own a film before the first video cassettes became commercially available in the late 1980s. That’s not even three decades. I know only few people who still have DVD collections. Most others get a film from a library, watch it and return it. Others get their films as downloads and watch them from pen drives. No one fetishises the object. Young people may talk about how they have all the Jan Švankmajer films on their hard drives but they don’t pile up their hard drives with little objects d’art in between. They just stash them somewhere amid the old socks and the worn out iPods and pretend that they will watch all the films they have collected when they get old. I never see anyone burying her nose in an old DVD.
Finally there is the simplicity of a book’s technology. It doesn’t take much. Just light and a pair of willing eyes and a brain to process what’s happening. I remember talking to UpamanyuChatterjee who had just finished writing a book even as he was on election duty in the state of Bihar. How did he do it? I asked him. He smiled and took out a fountain pen. That and a block of paper was all he needed, he said. They were his laptop.
The book ain’t broke. We’re trying to fix it.