Volume 24 - Autumn 2007


In Praise of Books

by Nigel Jury

New World English Dictionary (5th edition)
screenbook n. generic name for handheld communication device to download and display text by page, choice of fonts, capacity for several hundred books, now ubiquitous. Modern versions also exchange graphics, images and voice. Once regarded as successor to the paperbook, but comparison inaccurate.

Awakened by a screeching jolt as the train jerked through London's ancient Underground, Dave realised the cultured voice in his ear had read pages ahead while he dozed; Gielgud's simulated tones apparently too soporific for his mood and time of day. A touch on the left arrow brought his screenbook back several pages to the parting point in the text. Rather than select a more strident voice Dave switched from spoken to passive read, and turned off sound effects.

Staring at the now silent page Dave tried to collect his thoughts: the party had been great, but it ended only three hours ago; he was glad his bijou flat was close to WestWard Tube. No, it was no good, it was far too early to enjoy Dickens, that is he was too hung-over, so he closed the book.

By default the screenbook instantly switched to B2C's News'N'Sport: damn, my rollerball team is not doing at all well he noted, losing again last night despite the millions spent on biokeramic body enhancements. Spurs were losing far too many players crippled: relegation looks likely.

With a flash of sunlight the CommuTube emerged from the water and headed up the long westbound gradient leaving inundated London behind. About 20 minutes free, mused Dave, his dozy state sparing him the latest crop of disasters parading across his screenbook. Furious piano playing burst in his ear, Bach's Goldberg variations with Glenn Gould at his magnificent best. Dave looked down at the screenbook where a chessboard had replaced low priority news. The White Queen pulsed on her King-threatening square, his Black Knight sat forlornly off the board. Hells-teeth muttered Dave, old Pancho is really into this game, it must be midnight in Mexico. Well, I can't concentrate just now, I'll set a reminder tone for my lunch break. But I have to prepare for the monthly budget meeting, Damn!

His thoughts returned to the party. He didn't trouble much with birthdays but his girlfriend arranged everything so how could he refuse? Besides she had given him a perfect gift: the latest model screenbook, skilfully encased in tooled Russia leather she had been told was cut from the last skin recovered years ago from a sunken cargo. It hit the spot for Dave, full function matched with beautiful leather; hardwearing, practical, no conflict of style. But where did she find a leathercase binder of this quality?

15 minutes left. Dave fidgeted, his hung-over fragility feeding innate indecision: I really ought to work on my astrosophics course he recalled irritably, the term paper is overdue. Thumb hovered over the screenbook. Or shall I let Dickens paint his piquant picture of London? No contest: I crave the old-English prose. With two deft touches the screenbook displayed his marked page of Pickwick Papers.

"..you're a shuffler, Sir..a poltroon.." he read. 'Poltroon' what's that Dave wondered, touching the unfamiliar word on the screen: "in this context it means a mean-spirited, craven wretch" cooed his favourite husky voice in the earpiece: oh so sensuous and feminine, Dave muttered to himself. Sensuous Suzy! That's her name he decided as he read on.

"You are approaching your station, Dave" murmured Suzy, far too sensual a voice for 07.30 but he enjoyed knowing that she was actually 83 years old and looked older; her voice was pure twenty-something-year-old fantasy. He needed more comfort in his life. Reluctantly he marked his place and switched off, Caslon OldStyle 9pt fading at the touch to reveal his day's events in GatesGothic 10pt. Oh yes, he noted, a special delivery today.

The CommuTube disgorged its wakening cargo directly onto the travelator, taking Dave to his burostation past advertising plaquescreens inviting him to book his next holiday: "just place your hand here Dave and a week in AtlantisParc is yours" the voice tinny in the noisy concourse. He ignored the targetted temptation and stopped at reception to join his colleagues' chatter as they sipped their espressoma. The view from Upper Wycombe was stunning, a seascape framed in beech foliage, distant towertops of MetroWest scintillating, glass domes refracting sunbeams in the rippling water. Removing the British Library to the Chiltern Hills had been a masterstroke all those years ago he mused, though not before the Great Barrier Collapse had sent a tsunami up Euston Road breaching their makeshift defences. And giving life-long work to hundreds of conservators, archivists and scholars.

"Have you arranged secure delivery of the collection?" shrilled a familiar voice, hot breath spraying eau-de-cologne musk on Dave's cheek.

"The transipacs arrive at 1400, I will personally supervise their inspection", Dave replied, weary of his nagging boss, or She-Dragon as she was generally known. "These rare specimens are not in good shape, and nobody believes after such prolonged immersion in filthy water they can be conserved" he added to prove his grip on the situation, "but I do". "Just don't let those apprentice bodgers loose on them" She-Dragon snapped. "As the only examples of Jefferson's work extant they are priceless: we are lucky the European Kultural Kommissioner refused an export licence. Those bloody Indians are stripping this country of its heritage, or was it the Chinese this time?"

Ignoring her intemperate outburst Dave thumb-touched the deskscreen to verify its recognition of his arrival, the screen bursting into life with emails, e-vox clips, special offers from regular and totally unknown suppliers. I must reset my filters Dave thought, how the hell do those dating agencies get through my firewall?

His deskscreen glowed invitingly: For only 150 you can be the first to read Tycho Seldon's new work, the first chapter of his highly praised Astrosophistry Deconstructed will download at midnight.. His web-buying patterns attracted these incessant, sometimes annoying offers, but he had enough reading material loaded in his screenbook. Tycho's tome would have to wait. Besides the whole book will be on the Remaindered Download list in a couple of months, and 50 euro beats 150 any day.

Dave practised Management By Walking About, so took the lift to his department, the Conservation Bindery. Craft-historians were busy creating exact replicas of terminally ruined volumes, an endless occupation. He knew they occasionally took private commissions to make paperbooks for rich clients, forbidden by the rules of their employment, but Dave chose to ignore the anomaly. If a client wanted to buy their new-found skills he was delighted, even though the result was pure ornament. The old-fashioned paperbook was no match for a screenbook in actual use.

Besides where could you buy paper these days, or bookcloth or leather for that matter? The paperbookbinder was always at the tail-end of the process, only now he depended on the craft-historian papermaker, tanner and inkmaker working together on a particular project. Stricken forest trees were legally and effectively protected, proscribed for common papermaking, and synthetic fibre clothes were no source of rags, so new paper was virtually unobtainable. The British Library guarded its store of old papers as though they were printed banknotes - only much more valuable.

Dave loved his job, imagining his role as more doctor than conservator. He wept silently at the suppurating wounds his patients suffered, mute screams sensed in his healing hands. In every way these mouldering artefacts touched his soul. Feeling the worn, smoothed leather, smelling old neatsfoot oil and tainted damp elicited by his gentle strokes, the altogether different acrid smells wafting from the pages within as he gingerly fingered through the cockled leaves.

The exquisite layout of the pages, text and margins in perfect harmony, fount size and leading in perfect balance, now so often ruined by water. Harmonious book design was well understood but rarely articulated through the centuries of paperbook production. Now of course the very same principles were the foundation of his screenbook, and he savoured their beauty and efficiency with equal reverence.

In his more reflective moments Dave wondered how readers of the old paperbooks coped with their total lack of facilities. Despite their bulk most contained only the story text, even short stories filling more than pocket sized space. Paperbooks often gave no information on the context of the story, no biography of the author, save a blurb on the jacket usually saying little. No matter where your thoughts were taken by the story, no means existed to link you to an appropriate websource, not even the author's so the reader could discuss the story. Lacking page illumination you needed a lamp to read after dark, and reference manuals close to hand if the paperbook used English and ideas your state education failed to encompass, as often he found. So even at a basic level the paperbook was woefully inefficient, but all this was simply ignored by paperbook bibliophiles.

A sublime contradiction, Dave continued, addressing himself: I love to come upon paperbooks, and handle and use them, but they are no longer the best way to record and distribute information. Suppose I finish the paperbook during a long journey, if I didn't think to bring another one I would be stuck: reduced to looking at fellow travellers. With my screenbook of course I can choose any story or subject in my e-library, or download anything I fancy at trivial cost whenever and wherever I choose. If I am too weary to read, I can switch to listen-mode and someone else I choose reads to me, with relevant sound effects if I wish. Or I play music in my stereo earpiece while following the orchestral score on the screenbook, with all its interactive features. If the particular download is for instruction, I can link to a tutor (probably a computer in reality) and resolve any difficulties without delay. How on earth did they manage without these basic tools in the old days? Dave wished he knew the answer. It didn't occur to him that the paperbook was the best tool in its day, and had ousted the clumsy scroll as the more efficient device.

Notwithstanding their poor utility, Dave's deep love for his paperbooks gave rise to some odd behaviour. The small collection he had carefully assembled was prized and daily fondled by him, so much so his girl friends resented their second place in his heart (quite wrongly in fact, for Dave put them much lower than second).

He could not resist buying paperbooks when found, his first edition of The History of the Concrete Roof Tile was cherished as any Folio Classic edition, well, perhaps not as much as the birch-bark binding on his pristine copy of Richard Hakluyt's Tudor Venturers, he might admit if pressed.

Everything about paperbooks fascinated Dave. Like all craft-historians he had dedicated his life to recovering skills lost to society, even when society no longer needed them. He attended every video-conference, and was widely acknowledged as foremost expert on English silk headbands. His video-presentation on their construction and long evolution was definitive, though his theory that their purpose had nothing to do with extracting the paperbook from a full shelf was still controversial.

Laboriously his young crew were acquiring a wide range of paperbook binding skills, the team working with their colleagues in the papermaking, printing and associated teams in the British Library. Much ancient lore remained a mystery, and a few skills he privately thought were lost for ever.

Gilding individual letters had proved intractable, and Dave began to question if the perfectly aligned titling of the paperbooks in the Library had in fact been worked separately. After years of failed experimentation, deep searches into old papers on the ancient methods, and the difficult problem of procuring suitable gold leaf, he was ready to admit defeat. He knew the Library Executive and Friends thought his relentless and expensive research misplaced. The printing team had long since demonstrated a method using their advanced pressure-laser tool, and Dave had failed to identify the modern reproduction among ancient originals - to his abiding shame. So what was the fuss about? Consensus was that if the old-time finishers had been given a pressure-laser they would have used it without question. So why shouldn't we?

In his earpiece Suzy advised arrival of the special delivery so Dave headed quickly to the laboratory trailing his entourage of excited staff. With exaggerated deliberation to infuriate the young apprentices gathered around the bench, Dave slowly peeled back the hygro-osmotic gel-membranes protecting the precious items and then gently submerged each saturated volume in a Formasol-filled glass tray. "What's so special about these well rotten paperbooks?" asked an apprentice, his smirk betraying ignorant contempt for the musty agglomeration of leather and paper. "They're not even in The Library Register and Index are they?"

"Correct, young Brockman. You have done your homework, but quite failed to understand it" said Dave, "these soggy lumps are prizewinning bindings of exceptional quality and novelty. In fact they are so unusual that in two cases we have been unable to open the paperbook, some completely unknown locking device eludes us, but we persevere. Scholars specialising in late 20th century binding suspect the paperbooks contain material either illegal or illicit and they are keen to discover which. For myself I want to pick the lock without damaging the binding, but I am intrigued to know why Jefferson devised such a devilishly clever mechanism. With luck the microXray tomorrow should tell us how it works, if not why it is there".

While Dave pondered the bindings' mysteries, Suzy reminded him it was time to attend the budget meeting, "You were late last month Dave" she chided, her tone making him blush. Money, budgets and yet more damned cuts he grated. That's all the Dragon ever worries about.

Why oh why didn't we act when warned? The portents were there. Sea level was rising inexorably so the Thames Barrier was deployed more frequently, and failed too often. The threat was obvious even to a beleaguered Government. Their annual reductions in British Library funding might have helped balance the national accounts at the time, but at what far greater cost to our generation and successors? Dave was now fully wound up, the meeting will be acrimonious, but then they always were.

At the heart of his fury was the simple undeniable fact that while billions were being spent fighting endless water-shortage wars in Africa and the Middle East without any resolution in sight or much point, it seemed to him, there was never enough money to safeguard, now belatedly salvage, our water-saturated heritage. Would somebody please explain?

"I have muted all screenbook tones, Dave, we won't be disturbed" murmured Suzy in his ear.

Nigel Jury - After engineering training in RN, he spent entire working life in large industrial companies persuading disinterested colleagues to adopt new methods generally based on computer systems. Having witnessed the birth of successive new technologies, he is old enough also to have seen their demise, and the unforeseen problems arising from serial obsolescence. We may read books printed 500 years ago, but cannot read archives taped in 1980. Technology has long since overtaken him, and now retired he eschews the incessant intercommunication and impatience of the working place to enjoy bookbinding for friends, and helping people fend off aggressive bureaucracy


Skin Deep - Volume 24 - Autumn 2007

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