A friend called by a couple of days ago and happened to notice that the bookshelves which cover all the available wall space in our living room were bare.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you’ve got rid of an awful lot of books!’
The strength of my reaction took me by surprise. I practically fell over myself in my haste to assure her that we haven’t actually culled a single one; they’re all packed away in boxes in my office at the end of the garden, in preparation for a refurbishment of our living space which will take place next week. It’s a little hard to paint behind bookshelves with the books, or even the shelves, still in situ.
The incident gave rise to two trains of thought. No, one of them wasn’t maybe it’s time I bought a Kindle. That day is still so far in the future that I can’t even see the horizon it’s over. But Kindles were part of the first one. It’s this: what’s going to happen to real books when even diehards like me have succumbed to machine reading?
Marilyn’s recent posts about the best way to handle and care for your books is part of this too. I do handle my books with great care, the many battered paperbacks as much as the handful of beautifully produced hardcovers. Hardbacks have been in decline for quite some time, but perhaps ten, or twenty, or a hundred years hence, the battered paperback will be the obsolete item, and hardbacks will have staged a revival as precious artifacts to be cherished, dusted regularly, handled gently and put on display like exquisite ornaments.
The second train of thought was a little more complex, and concerns not real books but real manuscripts. I’m old enough to remember the days when writers produced their work on typewriters. Publishers’ guidelines used to ask for typescripts, and, at least when I was setting out, mostly refused to accept handwritten work – though of course it wasn’t so very much earlier that pen and ink was the only option. These days the guidelines don’t even bother to mention handwritten manuscripts, and anything that isn’t produced on a computer is likely to get cursory attention; in fact, to a greater and greater extent, anything that isn’t submitted electronically meets the same fate, even though editors I used to meet always said they preferred to sit in an armchair with a pile of pages, rather than try to read 80,000 words on-screen. I suppose now they just load the electronic manuscript on to their Kindle.
The point I’m arriving at via a somewhat longwinded route is this: in the days of typewritten manuscripts, the ‘fair copy’ had a value. When making a relatively small amendment could mean retyping a large chunk of the finished work, if not the entire thing, writers took a lot of care to get it as near right as possible before sending it to seek its fortune. When the work is stored on a hard disk, and it’s possible to make major changes which can be reprinted at the touch of a key, the editing process can go on indefinitely.
Today’s question is, does this make us better writers, or just more picky ones?
And what are the implications for the future? Museums and universities keep archives of real manuscripts: typewritten or handwritten pages of work in progress, festooned with margin notes, crossings-out and amendments, dating back hundreds of years. Unless today’s writers of note are saving multiple drafts of their work for posterity, in a format that new generations of computers will be able to access, the days of these archives will soon be gone, and the process these writers went through to arrive at the magnum opus will no longer be available for study.
Would that be a sad thing, or just an inevitable consequence of technological progress?