Howard Jacobson: We'll miss the sensuous pleasure of a real book

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's a scene in Pride and Prejudice in which the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh expresses amazement that Elizabeth Bennet grew up without a governess. "Then who taught you?" she wants to know. "We were always encouraged to read," Elizabeth answers, "and had all the masters that were necessary."

A modern Elizabeth Bennet, assuming the possibility of such a person, might answer with equal conviction that reading furnishes all that's necessary to a good education, no matter that she buys her books from Amazon and reads them on a Kindle. Reading's reading. Rasselas is still Rasselas whether it comes between paper covers or on an iPad. Fetishise the book and you might end up like Elizabeth's moralising sister, Mary, who always has her nose in one and speaks, as a consequence, like some country clergyman brought up on the essays of Addison and Steele.

One person determined to escape that fate is Louise Robinson, the incoming president of the Girls Schools' Association, who recently administered the last rites for words on paper, declaring that "when you see a young person on their tablet or on the internet, the magic that they are seeing in that information, the way that they absorb it and reflect it back at you is just wonderful."

Ask me to enumerate what I don't like about that and I would need every page of this newspaper. But I can start by saying that books do far more than impart "information", that "magic" is slavish to the young and does nothing to quiet the concerns of those who fear that screens make zombies of them, and that "reflecting" information "back" is not only a tautology but suggests a highly mechanistic notion of education for which the last word I would use is "wonderful".

Hard to imagine a greater contrast to this brave new techno-prattle than Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time – the Written Word which went out every morning on Radio 4 last week. My wife used to be a radio producer and often cites the maxim that radio makes better pictures than television. And indeed you didn't only think you could see the priceless volumes which Bragg examined as he went from library to library, his curiosity, enthusiasm and, in some cases it would be no exaggeration to say, his veneration was palpable too.

Yes, things evolve – that was partly what this terrific series was about – but its celebration of the written word in its varying manifestations made Louise Robinson's grudging concession, "that there will be a time and a place for going in to look at an old book" – observe that when she thinks "book" she thinks "old" – sound like vandalism. I hope I am not a vandal in reverse. I am not against the screen. I spend hours in front of one. The internet, I accept, is a fine tool for the superficies of research – a lazy man's reference library is better than no reference library – and while I don't have a tablet, I do own a Kindle. I even almost like it. There you are in a foreign hotel room, having forgotten the book you meant to bring, or having grown weary of the ones you did, and at the touch of a button you can have Milan Kundera by you.

Reading's reading. What's a Kindle but a book in another form, an alternative delivery system, enjoying the advantage, to boot, of an austerity of appearance, sans jacket, sans blurb, sans anything to take one's mind from the text itself. Instead of bewailing the imminent demise of the book, shouldn't a purist be singing the Kindle's praises?

The convenience of being able to carry a library of several thousand works around with you is not to be sneezed at. And no author should be displeased by the prospect of a reader finishing one of his books and then immediately laying hands on another. Courtesy of the Kindle a reader can sit up every night for a month in our company.

But reading isn't only getting from the beginning to the end. True, you can go back on a Kindle, but you can't bend or savage the page, can't familiarise or manhandle or otherwise make the book as physical object intrinsic to the pleasure of the words; and that's a pleasure forfeited because the tactility of a book – its weight, its size, its feel in the hand (the sensuousness that enraptured Melvyn Bragg) – will often match the tactility of what's in it, or vice versa, until in memory at least there's no saying where the one began and the other ended. The smell of a book might not reflect its literary content, but circumjacent associations wed a book to life.

The copy of Pride and Prejudice which I have just opened to find Lizzie Bennet's defence of reading is dated 1961, the year I went to university. It has marginal notes which I must have made when I was preparing a lecture on the novel in Sydney in 1966. A stationery requisition slip from Wolverhampton Polytechnic where I taught in the 1970s marks a page I considered especially affecting, and a further page is marked by a train ticket to Manchester, dated 1993.

Pride and Prejudice is more than the sentimental history of my reading it, but that history consecrates the novel to me nonetheless. If books are partly the story of our hearts, we have yet to discover how much we will have lost when they are gone.