In Defence of The Physical Book

Books are one of life’s simple pleasures. Like hot coffee or a crisp winter’s morning, there is an immortal pleasure to be found in the pages of a good book. Despite this, the book has been oftentimes stretched beyond recognition into films, audiobooks, and plays. This damage has occurred not only recently but since proverbial time immemorial. What, you may ask, is the problem with this? In singing its superlative praises, I hope to you recruit you to the fight in defence of the physical book.

The most pressing concern I have with consumption of literature through forms other than that of its creation is that the viewer/listener is allowed only to appreciate one interpretation of the writing’s meaning. In effect, every listener of an audiobook is subject to the voice-actor’s interpretation of the characters in the book (if dialogue is involved). Surely, this leads to the listener using little to no imagination when it comes to the character. To add to that, if a novel is performed as a play, the viewer has no opportunity to imagine the characters performed other than with the appearance of their actors. This is, of course, different when it comes to dramatic texts; interpretation here is the very value of the performance. In essence, to perform novels as plays is to diminish the element of imagination involved. This point is particularly valid when it comes to children’s literature. In my experience, the joy of say, Harry Potter, was the magical, imaginative concepts introduced. The recurring theme of mythical creatures, magic worlds and imaginary concepts in children’s literature lose their intrinsic value if subjected to the singular interpretation of the illustrator (or the like), tasked with defining an abstract, personal image. Whereas, when reading Harry Potter one is forced to imagine how Severus Snape looks, what Buckbeak sounds like and the Basilisk’s flickering, serpentine tongue. Not that readers would have to create these images totally of their own accord, it is J K Rowling’s role to plant the seeds of imagination, to provide how much detail she wishes to about her character’s appearance. How much of the author’s craft does the viewer of a Harry Potter film actually come into contact with? Is it not that the visual representation of something subjective defines the Hogwarts universe within bounds, and reduces the imagination required of the audience? After all, I have no doubt that you will have heard ’the book is always better than the film’, or ’always read the book before the film’ in conversation. I put it to you that the reasons I have outlined are the roots of such phrases.

Secondly, I think that the decline in the consumption of physical books comes with the pervasive consumerist culture we live in. In our incessant search for that which is better, bigger and faster we have created a divide between the active process of reading and the passive process of alternative literary consumption. With a tome in hand, the reader must give colour and form to the words as if nurturing new life; in front of a television that very colour and form is spoon-fed to the viewer. It is self-evident that the consequential difference between reader and viewer is one in interest, effort, and understanding of the text. Do we ought to be active readers or robotic viewers?

I think it is imperative that I clarify at this point: I begrudge not the writer whose creations were destined for screen from their birth, nor the playwright whose writings are designed to be read aloud. In making this distinction though, I think it is also imperative to realise that the author who wrote a novel did not intend it to be viewed, nor listened to, but to be read. An example is due. Several months ago I saw Jane Eyre performed as a play by a National Theatre company. Coincidentally, I had just finished that very masterpiece. If you have ever read Jane Eyre you will know that the length of the book and the autobiographical intimacy which Brontë creates contribute to an intimate relationship between the heroine and reader, a relationship which is empirically unachievable from the stage. The performance I watched at the Aylesbury Waterside did not come close to achieving the same connection. Actors cannot bridge the chasm between stage and seating in the same way that words can marry idea and mind. That is not to say that theatre is, in of itself, a poor art form, I only protest that Brontë wrote Jane Eyre not to be watched or listened to but to be read. Similarly, I might not have minded if the performance had been branded one ’inspired by Jane Eyre’. Consider the work of a great artist, Rembrandt say. Would not something be lost if this art were not viewed but described by audio? Or performed? Would that not be taking a creation and altering its form such that one is not replicating but disfiguring. At the simplest level, authors of books wrote them as books, and I strongly believe that to consume those books in any other than their original form is to destroy the book itself, it is to damage your experience of the fabrication beyond repair, and it is to inflict upon the author’s work desecration.

I make this specific argument in expectance of less agreement, but from a source more personal and subjective: books are beautiful things. As a physical objects, books have a history, feel, and character that will forever surpass the electronically synthetic nature of an e-reader. Perhaps this is the reason behind the recent downhill trend for the sales of Kindles, people are finally realising that there is something more valuable about a physical library than one comprised of pixels. One might accuse me of being materialistic, but I would retort that books seem to transcend the material realm despite their physical existence. Words are but shapes on a two-dimensional plane, but it is the magic of language that a long collection of those shapes creates worlds, ideas and beliefs. Can pixels serve this function equally as well? Probably, yes. Are Kindles more practical and economical than physical books? Certainly, yes. Should we abandon the beauty, the soul and the precious book on account of these factors? Not in my humble opinion.

Statistics show that books are on a return and winning the fight against Kindles, adaptations to the screen and tape, however, they continue to establish their grip on our culture. I do hope that the return to books is borne out of a more substantial consensus than that of Vinyl. Books are not yet retro, or a thing of the past, they are very much a key aspect of our society and cooperation as a species. But they are under threat, and it is crucial that we protect them against the pecuniary and comfort advantage of their mutilations.

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