Kathleen Jones on P.D. James and the Museum of Forgotten Books

P.D. James was born in 1920 and began reading and writing before the computer was even a spark in the synapses of its inventor.   But, approaching 90, she embraced (with a small sigh) the arrival of the E-book with the acknowledgement that it's the content that's important.

“For those of us who love books – the smell of the paper, the design, the print and the type, the feel of the book as we take it down from the shelf – reading by machine seems an odd preference.  But if we accept that what is important is the text, not the means by which it comes to the reader’s eyes and brain, it is easier to understand the popularity of this new resource.”

I fell in love with books almost before I could walk and would take books off my parents’ shelves and pretend to read them.  Aged two I was caught sneaking a dictionary out into the garden. 
But most of all I loved books as sources of delight and still do.  The cover opens magically like a door and immediately you’re off down the rabbit hole of some marvellous story or other.  It is the text, the content, the story that is important, although I still love books as objects – they are such beautiful heirlooms.

Here in Italy I recently visited a small museum charting the history of the book from the earliest, gigantic, monastic tome to the latest paperback.   There were some wonderful displays of metal letters and typesetting equipment - already obsolete, thanks to digital technology.

 This book showed one of the earliest printing presses.  If E-book formatting was this difficult, we’d never do it!

This book was the result.  Imagine trying to get it through on the Ryan Air luggage allowance - bound in leather and embossed with brass, it's as big as a small suitcase!
Illustrated books are works of art, not just sources of information.  Note to E-book authors – readers have always loved a pretty picture, gorgeous text layout and bells and whistles.

Fonts, at first decorative, soon became adapted to easy reading – something we have to take into account for E-books too.  Thankfully it is possible to insert text decoration into e-books as images, though you're still restricted to certain fonts for the main text.  My partner managed to keep some of the William Morris scrolls and curlicues for the e-book edition of Christina Rossetti and it brings it much closer to the Pre-Raphaelite  feel of the print version.

The production process for books has changed in more ways than one.  I became an author at the moment when the balance in publishing tipped towards the Thatcherite principle that commerce must always come first – without any exception for the arts.  I live with a visual artist and we both know what damage that has done for all art forms.  It seems that things that are deemed only to feed the spirit have little or no value.  Art has had to become commercial to survive and this has had consequences for Book-World.  It has become more and more difficult to publish anything that isn’t seen as a certain money-maker.    But salvation for authors has come in the form of the E-book, just as many publishers have – finally – lost the plot and are scurrying around in every direction looking for it (hint- some great plots on Authors Electric!).  Some publishers are putting up walls against E-books, either pricing them out of reach or simply not making them available.

But others are wiser –  particularly some of the small publishers who have become aware of  what the E-book can do for them.   One Canadian firm  – BeWrite Books – has adopted an ‘E-book First’ policy.   Here’s their manifesto:

“In 2011, after over a decade of independent publishing, our readers sent us a crystal clear message ... an overwhelming 98% bought our titles in digital editions rather than print. The jury has deliberated, returned, and the verdict is in. So, although the vast majority of our titles will also be available in paperback for some years to come, we are now one of the brave new millennium's Ebook-First publishing houses. Print now takes a back seat at BeWrite Books.”

How long will it be before more publishers follow their example, and the book as object becomes only a quaint exhibit in the Museum of Forgotten Books?  Can E-books ever achieve this level of beauty, or are they simply conveyers of text?  My guess is that the the book is already an endangered species and that E-book technology will become more and more sophisticated until the grown-up version will exceed all our wildest speculations!

Kathleen Jones is the author of more than 11 books of biography, fiction and poetry.  She blogs regularly at 'A Writer's Life'    Four of her titles are available on Amazon and Smashwords.

A Passionate Sisterhood

Christina Rossetti:  Learning Not to Be First

Margaret Cavendish: A Glorious Fame

Three and Other Stories


I very much enjoyed reading that Kathleen, and the photographs of those beautiful books are stunning. The Thatcherism of Art; that's as arresting an idea as the way you put it on the 11th...I'm going to try to remember without looking back so I will get it wrong...but...you were saying that, like Bulgakov's communist suppression of his work, we have lately had decades of capitalist proscription and censorship, every bit as soul-destroying to those caught in its cross-hairs and targeted, every bit as pernicious to the spirit too.
The spirit of those centuries-old books in your photos there seems to reach right out and clutch the heart. My feeling is that the late-Thatcherite publishers are the ones who betrayed that Spirit...and we Neo-Punks who dare to take up our guitars independently now are surely en route so far to making a much better job of channeling the true Spirit of Art than these late curators who betrayed it.
CallyPhillips said…
Yes, thanks for that virtual trip to an Italian museum!! How great to be sitting at home and see that, something otherwise I'd never see. And a good reflections on the nature of books as art and commerce. I'm sure ultimately the paper book will have had its time (but I think it'll outlive all of us - unless they develop some way of keeping us all going to well over a hundred. -And I'm not sure I'd like that - I'm happy to be time limited and one day somewhere someone might find an old paperback or some ebook version of my work and... if not put it in a museum, at least make some connection I can't even imagine.) So thanks for giving me a visual treat and food for the brain as well.. all before 10am!
julia jones said…
... so you made your blog post a visual treat as well. Thank you.
Avril said…
What a beautiful post - wonderful to look at and inspiring for the 'Neo Punks' among us who have turned our back on the prescriptions of the increasingly outmoded world of conventional publishing. I'm with you in you claim that e publishing is destined to become much more sophisticated - we ain't seen nothing yet!
Susan Price said…
Loved the post - but to be argumentative (my speciality) those beautiful old books were, in their day, as elitist as can be. I saw the magnificent gospels, iluminated on parchment, in Durham cathedral, looking as new as when they were done - unlike modern paper, which decays quickly - but those old books were, literally (!) worth a lord's annual income. They would never, never have been seen by commoners like us.
The printing press was as revolutionary as ebooks - I think we can hardly overstate how much - but the first books it produced were still very, very expensive.
As for ebooks, not only are they very cheap and accessible, I think they're only just beginning. Have you seen graphic novels on the iPad? The medium - the little electronic gadget - may not be as tactile and beautiul as a book, but the image has the potential to be as beautiful as any illuminated manuscript.
Dennis Hamley said…
Kathleen, that was a wonderful post with a gallery of superb pictures. We've just come back from Venice, where I noticed to my horror that some of the bookshelves in he Doge's Palace had MODERN books in them. I was very impressed by how your partner managed to keep in some of those lovely images for Learning Not To Be First. I'm still hoping there's a way of putting b/w illustrations on Kindle because, now Frances Lincoln, after their disgraceful, soulless and nowadays typical takeover by Quarto, have been forced to jettison all their fiction including Barn Owl Books, I want very much to put my Hare's Choice, together with the other two in the Hare trilogy, on Kindle with the marvellous illustrations by Meg Rutherford, without which the books are nothing. Yes, I know that one day that will be such an elementary part of the great ebook future, but I want it NOW!
Stephanie Zia said…
Thank you for a fascinating post.
Áine Ní Aodha said…
The Book of Kells(Leabhar Cheanannais), the most beautiful book in all the world to those of us of Irish extraction, would never make it past the money-grubbing marketeers in today's publishing world; and will never be replicated by Calibre nor Mobipocket nor KDP. So, books of that sort will be hand made, if at all, by dedicated artist and calligraphers. P.S. Anyone visiting the Columban monks before the Vikings raided them off the coast of Scotland could have seen it in 806 or thereabouts.
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks for all your illuminating comments everyone. I'm very happy to be a Neo-Punk John - love the phrase. Susan, I agree with you about the elitism of the first books - only kings, despots and clergy could afford them. I suppose I see E-books as part of the democratisation of books - cheaper and more available than even a paperback.
Dennis - I'm looking forward to your Hare trilogy in all its illustrated glory!
Long live the book in every shape and form.
A lovely, lovely post! Thanks! I've been chasing my tail for the past few weeks and am only now catching up on some excellent AE blogposts I've missed. I had a story about a very old book of my own and how it's about to inspire a novel, (well, probably next year!) but I think it deserves a post all of its own. If not the next one, then perhaps the one after that. Meanwhile, I love that term 'Neo-Punk'!

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