There’s a sense of familiarity and reassurance in much-read copies of books by favourite authors. It’s comforting to turn a page and remember that this is the part where you spilled soup on the name of the murderer because last time you read it you had flu and were under a blanket on the sofa. Or to realise you’re coming up to the part where you dropped the book in the bath, and that the renunciation scene between the lovers is permanently scented with Imperial Leather. Even better, is embarking on the chapter detailing the villain’s midnight prowl through the dark old house, where the pages are spattered with hair dye, because you were trying to put magenta streaks in your hair, and you had 15 minutes to fill up while the colour soaked in.
But in favour of of eReaders and iPads, it has to be said that it’s very convenient to carry around an entire library in a small device roughly the size of a sheet of A5 – to know that the flick of a switch can open up the complete works of just about every writer. The more impatient reader also has the satisfaction of being able to download and start reading a book within a matter of minutes. (Wi-fi connection permitting, and bank balance allowing). Also, you can mop soup splashes off the screen, scrub out hair dye and rinse away soapsuds, and you don’t have to replace your complete works of Colin Dexter because the cat was sick on them.
In 3,500 BC, the Sumerians wrote their books on tablets of baked clay. A thousand years later, papyrus scrolls were the reading method of choice. We’ve come a long way since then and probably it’s just as well. The prospect of hauling a couple of dozen clay tablets onto the train to while away your journey is daunting. Papyrus wasn’t something that could be packed into a shoulder bag or a beach tote, either – the history of the Egyptian King Ramses III was reportedly over 40 metres long.
Bookshops and libraries have changed dramatically, as well. The ancient and vanished Library of Alexandria is reported as having, in addition to scrolls, a room for dining, a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens and lecture halls. According to one source, an inscription above the shelves read, The place of the cure of the soul.
Forgotten glories…? And yet today’s libraries often have a coffee area, a section for book clubs and talks – although it’s likely that the rows of computer terminals would have fazed the long-ago Alexandrians.
Once upon a time there were secondhand bookshops – marvellous places with creaking floorboards and intriguing cobwebby corners. You could spend hours in them, searching for lost titles by long-ago authors. Often it was a good idea to take a few sandwiches and a flask with you, cancelling all engagements for the rest of the week.
But sad to relate, such places are dying out, although it should be noted that the world wide web has developed a quirky charm of its own. I’ve bought secondhand books from sellers rejoicing in the internet names of Salty Mavis, Captain Jellyman Twinkle, and Alex the Fat Dawg.
Quite apart from the shops themselves being so intriguing, they were excellent venues for authors who had a character needing to discover a clue, and they were an absolute gift to writers of mysteries with an historic slant. Any number of plots to assassinate a king or queen, to smuggle a pretender onto a throne, or topple a royal line, could be uncovered by a character searching diligently along dusty shelves. Privately-printed diaries could be disinterred as well, revealing all manner of scandalous secrets. On that last score, I’d have to give honourable mention to Denis Mackail’s short story, The Lost Tragedy – written in 1926, still to be found in various anthologies and well worth searching out.
And as for the debate about the printed page versus the screen – that’s something that will probably run for a very long time.