DON’T PANIC – David Pearson at the Swindon Festival of Literature

8 May
David Pearson at Swindon Central Library

David Pearson at Swindon Central Library

Is this the end of physical books? This was one of the questions posed by the Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries for the City of London, David Pearson, tonight at Swindon Central Library. If it is, don’t panic! said Swindon Festival of Literature Director, Matt Holland. The future is bright, but it may be electronic, not printed.

“I have thousands of books, always will have thousands of books, but I also have a Kindle,” said David. This was his clear and balanced approach to the topic; pragmatic about the advances that will leave the printed book behind, appreciative of the history and joys of the physical medium.

How long will books last? Basically if you are attached to the printed book, you are showing your age: in the future when children learn to read on an electronic device (when the screen becomes safe enough for developing eyes) then time will be called on mass-produced printed books; electronic reading will be the natural thing.

David talked about the subject of his book, Books as History: how we moved from scrolls to the ‘modern’ codex form in the second to forth century, when sheaves of paper were bound together. How we (the rich we, I suspect) loved to decorate our book covers. Queen Elizabeth I preferred embroidered covers to leather, ivory or jewelled.

Annotated printed books have also become historical documents with ‘vernacular social history’, literary and social commentary. Henry VIII wrote all over his with opinions on the church, government, etc.

I guess blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the like have taken over that role.

David extolled us to go home and write on our books, make them our own, turn them into something new. Avoid thinking of this as a ‘sexual violation’ a la Virginia Wolf. There is no longer the threat of imprisonment for half a year as happened to playwright Joe Orton in the 1960s for defacing library books. Create your own book-like social commentary, though this works best if you are clever or famous.

There was a discussion about the future of libraries and bookstores. Librarians are guides to reliable knowledge. Indie bookstores are places of discovery rather than where the reader buys a book they already know they want.

Perhaps – I’m musing here – libraries and bookstores are becoming curators and editors, people who help us to choose and discern from an immense amount of choice without being beaten into submission by ‘bestsellers’ and the most hyped. They are not institutions who control what we can read or have access to.

David began with an old picture of a library: an angel holding back time whilst cherubs look after the precious books on its delicate medium of paper. What is the modern day equivalent? Perhaps today it is not protecting the book, but protecting access to the book. Libraries are threatened as a place which offers free, professionally curated access to all for wisdom, entertainment and enlightenment.

Personally I think we are moving towards printed books as artisan pieces in the same way that vinyl records have become – something beautiful, bespoke that we enjoy touching, looking at, smelling, not simply reading. But our main reading consumption will inevitably become electronic.

Words and picture by Louisa Davison.

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3 Responses to “DON’T PANIC – David Pearson at the Swindon Festival of Literature”

  1. amaatk123 9th May 2014 at 7:49 am #

    Interesting! At Univeristy we’ve looked a bit at how every new technology creates a panic – putting it in simplistic terms. So when Caxton started his printing business everyone tutted and shook their heads and said it will kill manuscripts etc. Though in that case it did – apart for certain circumstances – but the point being that the written word survived. I think it still will for a good while yet. Having tried certain books on a Kindle – text books for example – that didn’t display properly at all so reverted to a ‘proper’ book for that purpose. There’s a place for both. 🙂

  2. amaatk123 9th May 2014 at 7:50 am #

    Reblogged this on Born again Swindonian and commented:
    Interesting! At Univeristy we’ve looked a bit at how every new technology creates a panic – putting it in simplistic terms. So when Caxton started his printing business everyone tutted and shook their heads and said it will kill manuscripts etc. Though in that case it did – apart for certain circumstances – but the point being that the written word survived. I think it still will for a good while yet. Having tried certain books on a Kindle – text books for example – that didn’t display properly at all so reverted to a ‘proper’ book for that purpose. There’s a place for both

  3. Festival Chronicler 9th May 2014 at 10:19 am #

    Yep, you’ve summed up both David and Matt’s points. There will always be people fearful of change. And sometimes it’s right to embrace it, and sometimes we need to ask ‘should we?’ And sometimes ‘how can we ensure it’s a force for good?’ Baaa!

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