- Jacques Bonnet, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, MacLehose Press, London, 2010, pp. 12, 30, 35.
It does strange things to your sense of time, to be in transition between two technologies of print: the new electronic one beckons you to step lightly on, into the future, but again and again confronts you with a wall, which has all the solidity of brick; while the old technology piles up its objects around you with such persistence, it is as if the past had developed an unstoppable momentum of its own. For all its promise of change, therefore, time appears not just to be standing still, but to be going backwards.
The image of this state of affairs that I find most compelling comes from a book that is itself now just a decade short of one hundred years old, Arnold Bennett’s novel Riceyman Steps. Bennett has suffered from the long-standing comparison with his contemporary Virginia Woolf, as the representative of a materially laden realism that is the antithesis of the penetration and the lyricism that modernism claimed as its superior strengths. But Bennett’s objects have a tendency to take on lives of their own, in a manner not dissimilar to Woolf’s, and in this respect, and in terms of its psychological penetration, particularly in relation to the condition of miserliness, Riceyman Steps has come to be regarded as one of the unacknowledged classics of the first part of the twentieth century. In the novel the object that expresses the pathology of miserliness, or hoarding, most powerfully, through its oppressive accumulation, is precisely the printed book.
Riceyman Steps revolves around a bookseller in the London borough of Clerkenwell in the 1920s, a man called Henry Earlforward. His shop displays popular novels in the window that faces the busy Kings Cross Road, but in the window around the side of the shop old books, first editions, and the works of writers who have ‘passed through decades of criticism into the impregnable paradise of eternal esteem’, look out on Riceyman Steps and beyond them, to the old and decrepit lodgings of Riceyman Square. Both the shop and the square embody a past that has been left behind by developments in the present. ‘Evolution has swirled round it, missed it, and left it.’ There is a certain prescience in Bennett’s focus on the printed book as the embodiment of a past marooned by the passage of time, gathering dust in the dim recesses of a miser’s shop.
The shelves of books in Earlforward’s shop become darker and darker, and more and more untidy, as they recede into gloom. ‘The effect was of mysterious and vast populations of books imprisoned for ever in everlasting shade, chained, deprived of air and sun and movement, hopeless, resigned, martyrized.’ But this isn’t quite right; at least, it doesn’t give the whole story. It doesn’t capture the printed book’s capacity for multiplication, accumulation. The floor of Earlforward’s office, at the back of his shop, is also thickly strewn with books, which pile up over the desk and chairs. The left-hand half of every step to the first floor is stacked with popular romances, and the landing also. In the dining room there are more books, settled on the dining table, the sideboard, the mantelpiece, the chairs, the floor; in the bedroom the wardrobe is stuffed with books; in the bathroom the bath is full to the brim and overflowing with them; upstairs, they are in each room on the second floor too.
In his recent eulogy to the phenomenon of book-collecting, written as he says ‘from a continent which is about to be lost forever’, Jacques Bonnet acknowledges the unstoppable progress of the book, once it has been gathered in numbers: ‘We can only stand and watch as it invades all the walls of the room, climbs to the ceiling, annexes the other rooms one by one, expelling anything that gets in the way.’ Like Bennett’s Earlforward, Bonnet admits to having a bathroom full of bookshelves, which made it impossible to have a shower, and books in the kitchen as well.1
Bonnet is of course proud of his library, which runs to some 40,000 volumes. It is the repository of his emotional life and the expansion of his memory; it protects him, and gives him an extraordinary sense of power, as if he were a potentate at the centre of a vast world, since the books concentrate time and space, offering their long perspectives to him at his command.
I wish I felt like that, but I don’t. I find myself fighting off a constant sense of oppression, brought about by the accumulative power of the book. Perhaps this is a crankiness peculiar to editors and publishers, who are habitually the recipient of books they haven’t asked for, or haven’t been able to sell, and are too respectful of the object itself, in which they invest a lot of time and energy, to welcome its destruction. (I’m probably speaking about small publishers here—bigger publishers have warehouse managers to do the job for them.)
My study is full of books, on shelves, desks, couches, floor, and they have spread through the house. I have two offices full of books, two storage units, my distributor’s warehouse. In how many places is that: five! What if I were rid of all of them, if the transition to the electronic book were so complete there would be no need for the physical book at all? Would I feel free, unencumbered, happy?
We are obviously not at that stage yet, and perhaps we never will be. Right now, if I embark on a path of reading, such as the one stimulated by the preparation for this essay, I can only progress swiftly by electronic means to a certain point. Newspaper and journal articles I can access relatively easily through my university library. Arnold Bennett’s works are all out of copyright, and are available in electronic form, as are the recent print editions. No problem there with Riceyman Steps. But M. Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves is no phantom itself. Published in 2010, it is only available as an expensive little hardback. This must be a common experience for those who take wing on a line of thought only to be stopped soon after setting out by a reference to a book that remains obdurately physical, and out of reach of their electronic reader. This is the wall I referred to earlier, as impenetrable as if it were made of bricks.
Nevertheless it is worth asking the question, what would a space without any printed books be like to live in? There are demographic and ecological imperatives that require us to imagine how we will accept restrictions on our living spaces and the resources we use in the future. For all our sentimentality about the printed book, it is fundamentally a mechanically produced object, generated in numbers that usually far exceed the demand for it, and read only partially if at all by many of those who buy it. It is a wasteful process.
But then so is the tree’s production of blossoms and seeds.
Nor is the collecting of books a good use of resources when considered from a practical point of view. Of the books in my personal library I have read only a fraction, and a large proportion of that fraction I would not have opened for twenty years or more. For example one, Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General System Theory, which I read early in my doctoral research, I haven’t looked at for almost forty years. It stands in my mind as an example of the impossibility of discarding books that have played a role—however minor—in one’s life. Yet when I go to the bookshelf, I can’t find it. I remember a half-hearted attempt at culling a few years ago; perhaps I made the hard decision on its fate then.
Now I experience another twinge. The book was one in a series of attractive black-covered Penguin University Paperbacks, designed by John McConnell, who would go on to implement the redesign of Faber’s paperbacks in the 1980s. The book represents the intellectual milieu of the 1970s for me both because of its design (that is to say, as an object in itself), and because of the authors published in the series, who included Piaget, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Goffman, Marcuse, Berger and Luckman, and Wellek and Warren (their Theory of Literature). The book has such a strong presence in my mind, I believe I have it even when I don’t. For this reason, I don’t really need to have it at all. But would it have had this presence if I had read it first in electronic form?
I have some of my father’s books too, hardbacks necessarily, most of them in the Everyman or Modern Library editions of his time. I remember particularly the American realist writers, on whom he was very keen—Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, John dos Passos. Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which I read one summer under the spreading willow tree in the garden of my grandfather’s holiday bach in Rotorua. One of his ‘sexy’ books too, Pierre Louÿs’ Aphrodite, which carries the inscription: ‘To Comrade Jack, On his becoming mature. From Alan.’ I guess that would have been in 1942, at the time of his twenty-first birthday. Later, when my father married my mother, he changed his name from Jack to John, and left his Communist days behind him.
I see now, from the notes all over it, that I read Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale in my father’s Everyman edition, since it has his signature and the date 1944 on the flyleaf. On the next page, a blank, I wrote at some point ‘das fruchtbare Bathos der Ehfahrung’. Amazing, since I don’t speak German! A Google search reveals that the quote came from Kant—his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science—by way of Samuel Beckett’s Watt, which I had read closely for my undergraduate honours dissertation in 1971. It must have been fresh in my memory when I read The Old Wives’ Tale with Riceyman Steps in late 1972 or early 1973. At the same age my father would have been in 1944. The fruitful bathos of experience!
This is where I stick (and pretty quickly too) when it comes to virtual books and virtual libraries—what will happen to the book as gift, or to those that are handed on, between the generations? The quotes and notes are allowed for carefully in electronic editions; the date of purchase will be recoverable too. But how to give an e-book as a gift in a way that preserves the physical nature of the gesture, and more importantly, its resonances? The gift economy is vital to booksellers and publishers alike, since most of their books are sold in the period leading up to Christmas. What will it look like if the only books printed are those that might be given as gifts? Aren’t all books, except technical and academic titles, in this category?
I don’t know how feasible it will be in the long term to have small print runs of the physical book to accompany its widespread distribution in electronic form, so as to allow for the giving of gifts and other special uses. This co-dependency is often proposed as the way of future, and in response to falling demand, printers have become extraordinarily adept at printing or reprinting small numbers of a book while maintaining quality and—apparently—commercial viability. I am suspicious of compromises like this—won’t the more efficient and profitable of the competing forms sooner or later devour the other? But since the prospect of a world without physical books is hard to imagine, even if it is technically possible or desirable, there may well be imperatives working in the print–electronic compromise that render it immune to the logic of profit.
As a literary publisher, I like the idea of shorts—short print runs, short books. For too long, success in the literary world has been measured by the best-selling novel. The economy of literary publishing is such that it is almost impossible to go broke publishing books up to, say, 150 pages long, if you have an eye for quality. Poetry collections are the best example of this logic—they have virtually no presence in the market place, where their quality is irrelevant, but they can usually meet their costs on a small number of sales due to their ability to attract literary subsidies. Rather than try to meet the market—this amorphous, anonymous and largely illusory herd of readers for whom one prints thousands of copies of a book in the hope that they might feed on it, usually in vain—to go short is to assume from the outset that there will only be a few readers, and you may already know most of them by name. You can call to them, and if they like the book, they can call to others. Going short like this may actually restore value to the printed book by creating a sense of scarcity or specialness, just as it sinks under the weight of its own multiplication. It also has the effect of crystallising out of that anonymous entity ‘the reading public’ a group of readers small enough, and connected enough, to constitute a community in a real rather than an abstract sense.
How short is a short print run? In one respect the answer is obvious: one or two copies, since printers have machines that can produce a single copy on demand, without a significant drop-off in production values. But I would prefer to put the question in another way: how many physical copies of a new literary title are required to establish its presence in the minds of its likely readers? I would put the figure at 300 copies, allowing that up to half of these might go to reviewers (most of whom will ignore it) and libraries (where it may remain unread). Our literary communities are small, and you don’t need many readers to ensure the survival of a literary title from one generation to the next.
Both of these uses of the physical book—the book as gift, the book as the expression of a community—have reciprocity as their common property. It is this reciprocity, this embodiment or anticipation of recognition, which gives them life. Their antithesis is the book that has been thrown aside, abandoned by time, hoarded, stacked or left unread. It is here that you sense the pathological aspect in the accumulation of books. Bonnet describes his collecting habit as a ‘gentle and inoffensive obsession’, though he also refers to it as a mania. Bennett goes further when, in Riceyman Steps, he takes the uncontrolled hoarding of books as the sign of miserliness.
Books are particularly suited to express the pathology of hoarding because each contains a world, the idea of which may be cherished without ever being realised. Bonnet compares a book to a safe. ‘Every time you open a book for the first time, there is something akin to safe-breaking about it. Yes, that’s exactly it: the frantic reader is like a burglar who has spent hours and hours digging a tunnel to enter the strongroom of a bank.’ Bennett’s bookseller is fearful of theft. His books remain closed, except to disclose their price. What the miser hates is expense of any kind: this includes eating, feeling and anything that enhances the sense of passing time. As the books take over the shop and the house that contains it, they come to resemble an unstoppable cancer—and it is just such a growth, blocking the entrance to his stomach, that kills the bookseller. The physical presence of the unread or the once-read book, which is what makes it so attractive as a sign of unspent potential, reveals its morbid aspect when present in large numbers. The overstocked library or bookshop resembles a graveyard. All those obsolete and unwanted books in their rows. Inert, uncirculating.
Bennett believed in collecting books. He wrote a book on the topic in 1909, Literary Taste: How to Form It, with Detailed Instructions for Collecting a Library of English Literature. He exhorted readers to surround themselves with books. ‘The merely physical side of books is important … The eye must be flattered; the hand must be flattered; the sense of owning must be flattered … buy—buy whatever has received the imprimatur of critical authority. Buy without any immediate reference to what you will read. Buy!’
So it is not for him the simple accumulation of books that renders them harbingers of deathliness. It is their removal from use or circulation or reciprocity, their association with obsolescence, that makes them weigh so heavily. After Earlforward’s death, Bennett sends his books off to a new life—or as it really seems, a new death. ‘The entire stock of books was sold by private treaty to a dealer in Charing Cross Road, who swallowed it up and digested it with gigantic ease. The books went away quietly enough in vans.’ This is the prospect we face, if the electronic book, which is renowned for the ease of its distribution, and its promise of circulation, were to take the power of reciprocity from its printed counterpart too, leaving the latter to accumulate in unvisited warehouses and gloomy second-hand bookshops, or to take the road in vans to the nearest incinerator.
An endnote, courtesy of the internet. In March 2010 the London Daily Telegraph reported that a copy of Riceyman Steps, which had been borrowed from the library in Great Yarmouth in 1948 by the late Dudley Frosdick, had been returned by his younger brother David, who found it among the belongings of their other brother, John, who had recently died. It seems strangely appropriate that a book about the hoarding of books should itself have been hoarded. But you could say that the book was asking for it. The adopted owner was liable for £2500 in accumulated fines.© Ivor Indyk 2011