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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat