Finding myself for three or four months at a loose end on the island of Jersey, a tax haven in the English Channel, I decided to go into the archives and write a short book about three murders that took place there in as many months between December 1845 and February 1846, including that of the only policemen ever to have been done to death on the island, George Le Cronier. He was stabbed by the keeper of a brothel known as Mulberry Cottage, Madame Le Gendre, who, a true professional, struck upwards rather than downwards with her specially sharpened knife, exclaiming expressively as she did so, “Là!” Le Cronier staggered outside and said to his fellow policeman, Henri-Manuel Luce, “Oh mon garçon, je suis stabbé !” (the language of most people of the natives of the island at that time being a patois). He died a day later, and Madame Le Gendre was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for life, outraging the righteous residents of Jersey with the elegance of her dress as she left the island, never to return.
Among the books I consulted in my researches in the library of the Société Jersiaise was La lyre exilée, a book of poems published in 1847 by a French exile to the island, L. D. Hurel. All that I was able to find out about him (Hurel was a pseudonym) was that he arrived several years before the most famous French exile to Jersey, Victor Hugo; the reasons for his exile are unknown.
La lyre exilée contained a funeral ode to Le Cronier, as well as an ode to the abolition of the death penalty. Hurel published the former ode separately just after the murder, when feelings ran high on the island; according to the author, it sold out in two editions of two thousand copies each, which means that one in twelve of the population bought it.
Having left the island, and now writing the book, I discovered that my notes from La lyre exilée were incomplete and I needed to consult it again. Where could I go to do so? Books don’t come much more obscure: there were only twelve copies known in the world. (It is what the sellers of antiquarian books call very scarce, without ever letting on that people who are interested in it are scarcer still.) To return to Jersey was out of the question; then I discovered to my surprise, and initial pleasure, that the book had been digitized. I could consult it without leaving my study, without even shifting in my chair. I was briefly reconciled with and to the modern world.
Soon, however, my pleasure gave way to a melancholy, an unease, and even a slight bitterness. If a book as obscure as La lyre exilée were available online, did it not herald the extinction of the book itself, an article rendered redundant like the goose quills of old or fine sand to dry ink on paper?
If so, why should such an eventuality cause me to grieve? After all, I had felt no particular sorrow at the disappearance of the typewriter. (A film with a scene in a typing pool now strikes us as irresistibly comic, as if all those typists were simpletons or country bumpkins.) Nevertheless, I grew uneasy, like a man who had spent all his life on arcane alchemical studies only to realize towards the end, when it is too late to take up anything else, that scientific chemistry had rendered all his endeavors nugatory: that he had, in fact, devoted his earthly existence to the search for a chimera and frittered his time away on a child’s illusion.
For books, whose disappearance the digitization of La lyre exileé seemed to presage, have played an immense part in my life. It would be vain to suggest that I valued them only for their content, as a rationalist might say that one ought; I valued them as physical objects and have accumulated thousands of them. I am not a bibliophile in the true sense, that is to say someone who finds excitement in a misprint on page 278 which proves that the book, which he might or might not ever read, is a true first edition. Nor am I a bibliomaniac in the true sense, the kind of person who will eventually be found lying dead under a pile of books that he has incontinently or indiscriminately collected because of some psychological compulsion to accumulate. No, I am something in between the two (as a physician put it when I was a student, as he tried to explain to a patient that he had myeloma, which was neither cancer nor leukaemia, “but something in between the two.”) I prefer a good edition, physically as well as literarily speaking, to a bad one; I buy more books than I read, though always with the intention of reading them; I am not an aficionado of rarity for rarity’s sake, though I have some rare things, upon which the eye of the avaricious bookseller called in by my relict will immediately alight as he offers her yardage, $5 a yard of books.
For the moment, however, I derive a certain comfort from looking over, and being surrounded by, my laden shelves. They are my refuge from a world that I have found difficult to negotiate; if it had not been for the necessity of earning my living in a more practical way, I could easily, and perhaps happily, have turned into a complete bookworm, or one of those creatures like the silverfish and the small, fragile, scaly moths that spend their entire lives among obscure and seldom disturbed volumes. I would have not read to live, but lived to read.
The shelves are an elaborate hieroglyph of my life that only I can read, and that will be destroyed after my death. Never having been a scholar of anything in particular, my life has been a succession of obsessions; as some murderers return to their crimes and become serial killers, I am a man of serial monomanias, each lasting a few months at most, and my books reflect this. A friend of mine, looking over them, said that anyone trying to discern from my books who I was or what I did would fail; for what has the history of Haiti to do with poisoning by arsenic, or the history of thought in nineteenth-century Russia with that of premature burial, plague, cholera, and the anti-vaccination agitation? Surprising numbers of books on all these matters are to be found on my shelves; and if I needed any reassurance of my own individuality, as the increasing number of people having themselves tattooed or pierced seemingly do, these shelves would supply it.
So important are books to me that when I go into someone’s house, I find myself drawn to the bookshelves, if any; I try to resist, but in the end succumb to the temptation. If all flesh is grass, all mind is books: at any rate, such is my prejudice, though I know it is not strictly true. What is absent from the shelves is as important, of course, as the silence of the dog that did not bark in the night. My library, for the moment so solid and reliable, will dissolve after my death as surely as will my body. Some people claim that the knowledge that the atoms and molecules of which they are composed will survive to be absorbed into the wider world consoles them for the prospect of their death; and I, too, derived, until recently, some consolation from the fact that I am not really the owner of my books, but only the temporary guardian of them until they are passed on to the guardianship of someone else. It is true that when, in earlier years, I bought a book a quarter of a millennium old I looked at the names of the previous owners inscribed on its cover or title page and thought, “Now, at last, the book has found its true owner, its final resting place—me,” and pitied the previous owners for their failure to understand this, and for their ignorance of the book’s final destiny. But now I am more inclined to recall that I have owned the book for thirty years; in another thirty years it will be owned, or looked after, by someone else of whose identity I know nothing, and he will suffer from precisely my delusion and that of all previous owners. (Not that this prevents me from acquiring yet more books; and the Rev. Thomas Dibdin, author of Bibliomania: The Causes and Cure of this Fatal Disease, describes how a bibliomaniac who was already possessed of 50,000 books sent out for more volumes from a bookseller’s catalogue on his very deathbed, indeed at the very hour of his death. Was his death a happy or a sad one? Do we envy him his continued passion or smile at his sorry delusion? At any rate, his library was sold immediately afterwards at auction for far less than he had paid for it. Bibliomania, incidentally, underwent what was probably the largest and fastest expansion between first and second editions in the history of publishing; appearing first in 1807, it was 94 pages long; by the second edition, two years later, it had expanded to 786 pages, the expansion in itself a metonym for the bibliomaniac’s problem. A century and a quarter later, Holbrook Jackson’s Anatomy of Bibliomania, a wonderful and astonishingly erudite compendium of booklore, composed on the model of Burton’s Anatomy, was even longer. Also incidentally, bibliomania is another section in my library, a kind of meta-library, if you will.)
But the consolation that my library will dissolve into its constituent parts in the great world of second-hand books is not as great as it was even a few years ago. Second-hand booksellers are closing their shops and transferring their businesses online because 90% of their sales come from the Internet and 90% of their overheads come from their shops. It is a very simple business decision.
A bookseller, from whom I had been buying for nearly forty years, and with whom I had grown old, told me, shortly before he closed down his shop, that the nature of customers had changed over the years. True browsers like me, who were content to spend two or three hours among the dust to find something of whose existence they previously had had no inkling, but which, by a process of elective affinity, aroused their interest and even sparked a passion, were few and were old. In so far as young people came into his shop at all, they came to enquire whether he had such and such a book, usually required reading for some course or other; and if he had not, they left immediately, having no further interest in his stock. Their need for the book in question must have been urgent, since it was available online for delivery next day; they must have been late with an assignment. So if youth were the future, the future, at least for second-hand booksellers with shops, was bleak.
This was a genuine cultural change, my bookseller said, and not just the complaint of a man who had grown old without seeing the time pass. When he started out in the trade, young people browsed in the way that only the old now did; and so he had been overtaken by a change that owed nothing to him, as wheelwrights, coopers, or blacksmiths had once been overtaken.
So who will take my books after my death? Into what wider world will they be absorbed?
Other booksellers have told me stories that I did not find reassuring—though booksellers say of each other’s stories that they are unreliable, for as a profession they are like anglers, with tales of Gutenbergs and Caxtons and Elzevirs and Vesaliuses and First Folios that got away (book-buyers are no different, of course, and I too have my stories of books that I almost bought but for some reason failed to do so).
These stories were of the wholesale abandonment or destruction of rare and valuable books by public institutions, even of those books willed by individuals to those public institutions. It was not as if librarians were merely ambivalent or negligent of the books in their charge, but as if they actually hated them, as workers in chocolate factories come to hate chocolate. One bookseller in Wales told me that he found seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books dumped in a skip outside a supposed institution of learning. Another found the librarians of a county library walking over the sixteenth-century books that they had pulled from the shelves preparatory to throwing them away in order to make space for more computer terminals. The process is called deacquisitioning, a truly Orwellian term, as if demolition or bombing were called debuilding; and one of the justifications for the process is that records show that the deacquisitioned items have not been consulted for years, for decades. A library is no longer a repository of all that has been thought or written but a department store where the readers determine by their borrowing habits what stock should be held. If they want Dan Brown rather than the Summa Theologica, then that is what libraries should carry. The customer is king.
Another justification for deacquisitioning is the need for space, not only for computer terminals, but also for books themselves. Despite lamentations over the decline in reading as a habit among the young, more books than ever continue to be published in every conceivable field. A library containing every book published in Great Britain in just a single year would now be larger than the largest library in the world a few centuries ago; except for institutions such as the Library of Congress, the British Library, and the Bibliothèque nationale, very severe and even ruthless selection is obviously necessary. But I do not think this fully explains the ancient books in the skip, which after all could have been sold, any more than the need for living space explains the mania for the demolition of old buildings.
Be all this as it may, it is indisputable that the half-millennial hegemony of the printed page in intellectual life is now coming to an end. Newspaper circulations, for example, are in precipitous decline everywhere in the developed world; in so far as they survive it is because those who grew up reading them still like the physical object between their hands. Nothing is so weak as the force of habit when the habits of succeeding generations change.
Repeated surveys show that children spend less time reading than did previous generations. They instead devote many hours of their waking lives to electronic screens of one kind or another: not long ago some American researchers presented their results at a conference I attended that showed that American children now spend seven hours a day, on average, in front of a screen, whether it be television, computer, or telephone. They asked children at randomly generated times to use the video facility of their phones to film what they were doing at the time; and this showed that many of the children had several screens around them illuminated at the same time. Would this minestrone of simultaneous electronic stimulation permanently affect their ability or willingness to concentrate on one thing, to the detriment of real intellectual attainment? The researchers did not know the answer to this; certainly, those who spent more time in front of screens did worse academically, though whether this was cause or effect they were unable to say. A child who spends sixteen hours in front of screens is unlikely to differ from a child who spends only an hour in front of them only in this respect.
People of the book, such as I, not only believe that the replacement of the page by the screen will alter human character, thin it out, empty it of depth, but secretly hope this happens. A deterioration in human character consequent upon the demise of the book will be, for the inveterate reader, an apologia pro vita sua. For we who have spent so much of our lives with, and even for books secretly derived a sense of moral superiority from having done so. This is obvious from the fact that no one says “Young people nowadays do not read” in a tone other than of lament or, more usually, moral condemnation. A person who does not read—and for us reading means books—is a mental barbarian, a man who, wittingly or unwittingly, confines himself to his own experience, necessarily an infinitesimal proportion of all possible experiences. He is not only a barbarian, but an egotist.
We who pride ourselves in reading much and widely forget that the printed page serves us in a similar fashion as the drug serves an addict. After a short time away from it we grow agitated and begin to pine, by which time anything will do: a bus timetable, a telephone directory, an operating manual for a washing machine. “They say that life’s the thing,” said Logan Pearsall Smith, a littérateur of distinction but now almost forgotten, “but I prefer reading.” For how many of us—avid readers, that is—has the printed page been a means of avoidance of the sheer messiness, the intractability, of life, to no other purpose than the avoidance itself ? It is for us what the telenovela is for the inhabitant of the Latin American barrio, a distraction and a consolation. We gorge on the printed page to distract ourselves from ourselves: the great business of Doctor Johnson’s life, according to Boswell and Johnson himself. Or we read to establish a sense of superiority, or at least to ward off a sense of inferiority: “What, you haven’t read Ulysses?”
Once, staying overnight at an airport hotel in Los Angeles, I found myself without a book. How this happened I can no longer recall; it was most unusual, for by far the most useful lesson that life has taught me, and one that I almost always heed, is never to go anywhere without a book. (In Africa, I have found that reading a book is an excellent way of overcoming officials’ obstructionism. They obstruct in order to extract a bribe to remove the obstruction; but once they see you settled down for the long term, as it were, with a fat book, Moby Dick, say, they eventually recognize defeat. Indeed, I owe it to African officialdom that I have read Moby Dick; I might otherwise never have got through it.)
Reduced in my Los Angeles room to a choice between television and the yellow pages—no doubt now also on the verge of extinction—I chose the yellow pages, and there discovered just how unusual my obsession with books was. I looked up bookstores, and found no more than half a page. Teeth-whitening dentists, on the other hand, who promised a completely renewed existence to their clients, a confident smile being the secret of success, and success of happiness, took up more than twenty pages. Not poets, then, but teeth-whitening dentists, are now the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
An intellectual might be defined as someone who elaborates justifications for his own tastes and preferences, as metaphysics was once defined as the finding of bad reasons for what we all believe on instinct. And so the reader of books soon finds reasons for the supposed superiority of the printed page over the screen of the electronic device: for nothing stimulates the brain quite like the need for rationalization. The dullest of minds, I have found, works at the speed of light when a rationalization is needed.
The page of a book is aesthetically pleasing as a screen is not: except that many pages of many books are not aesthetically pleasing. It is easier to retrace one’s steps in a book than on a screen: but only for those who are not as technologically adept as the young now are. It is easier to annotate a page of a book than a page of a screen: but the same objection applies. It is easier to concentrate long and seriously on a book than on a screen: but there is no intrinsic reason to the medium why this should be so, any more than there isp, ace the late Neil Postman, why television should be given over to vulgarity and trivia. We bibliophiles are reduced to finding bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.
I asked one of my publishers (a man in a small way of business, as all my publishers are) whether he thought the book would survive. He, after all, was more interested in the question than most, and self-interest—among businessmen, not among academics—is a powerful stimulus to the search for truth. He said that he thought that it would, though such genres as pulp fiction and airport novels would soon be entirely digitized. Books of greater or exceptional content, or with high aesthetic value, would continue to be published. I immediately felt relieved, and told him that in these matters he was my guru: his prognostications assumed in my mind the status of fact. But he warned me against placing my faith in him, for most of his predictions had turned out to be exactly the opposite of what happened. “Then you shall be my urug, my mirror-image guru,” I said.
I saw at once that the concept of an urug was a useful one, for many are the experts in various fi elds—economics, for example—who are valuable as guides to reality, provided that you take them as urugs and not as gurus. The problem lies in deciding which is which.
Whether the book survives or not, I am fi rmly of the opinion that it ought to survive, and nothing will convince me otherwise. The heart has its beliefs that evidence knows not of. For me, to browse in a bookshop, especially a second-hand one, will forever be superior to browsing on the internet precisely because chance plays a much larger part in it. There are few greater delights than entirely by chance to come across something not only fascinating in itself, but that establishes a quite unexpected connection with something else. The imagination is stimulated in a way that the more logical connections of the Internet cannot match; the Internet will make people literal-minded.
There are stages on a trade’s road to extinction, and the second-hand book trade is no exception. It is now overwhelmingly conducted online, and small towns of my acquaintance that used to have several such bookshops now have none. The métier of the book-searcher is no longer in existence, and the immense arcane knowledge that book-searchers once had is now quite useless. Instead there are sites that claim to have 100,000,000 volumes for sale, and this, of course, is an inestimable boon to those who need, or want, a certain book urgently. At the touch of a few keys, a book that once would have taken a lifetime to find will be delivered to your door tomorrow or the next day.
But every gain is also a loss. The pleasure of a book delivered in this fashion (though it exists, of course) is not as great, not as intense, as that of one found by chance, unexpectedly. Perhaps there is a wider lesson here: you cannot have it all, you cannot reconcile all possible sources of pleasure. You cannot have the joys of serendipity and those of the convenience of immediate access to everything. Furthermore, it seems that you cannot choose between them as technology advances. To adapt Marx’s dictum about history slightly, Man makes his own pleasures, but not just as he pleases. To refuse to use the new technology in the hope of preserving old pleasures will not work because to do so would be no more authentic or honest than Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess. The regret is genuine; the refusal is not.