On Gutenberg and Google

‘To publish or not to publish’ is the fundamental question for every writer. For some probably ranking up there with ‘To be or not to be’. Some writers will see publishing as an extension of existence, the treasured book becoming a material symbol of being there, of having seized the Word. The book becomes a way of communicating with a potentially large number of other human beings, becomes one of the writer’s faces towards the world at large.

‘A material symbol of being there’ requires reflection, however. Books as material things become relativised in an era of digital publishing. Sure, to publish is the important thing, regardless of format, yet having a book in your hands, in the Gutenberg sense, is a source of immense satisfaction. Your thoughts on a piece of paper lend physicality to your thoughts. My friend Harry Eyres suggested in conversation that the eye is our key acquisitive organ. Hence, music might be more spiritual than a painting because the ear cannot take possession. You cannot own a Schubert, but you can own a Rembrandt. With physical books your eyes can admire, your hands can flip through, you can take possession. This brings satisfaction, not only to writers, but to readers as well. And the satisfaction is something good, no matter how much we appreciate Schubert. I come from a culture where the library was where you would get books, and because you did not own you did not build up a loving relationship with the actual books. My daughters have from very early on owned many books, and I have been able to observe how relationships were built with the books – the love of the Harry Potter book read for the 10th time!! Dog ears frowned upon as had you injured a friend!

Digital books can be argued to fit well with the ephemeral nature of books in terms of the ideas and the imagination they stimulate.  Digital books might be purer, in a sense, because we do not acquire a physical thing, and, ironically, digital books might be more permanent than those of Gutenberg. Google does not forget, the digital universe tends to be almost eternally retrievable, unless you swear by Snapchat. And there is no denying the convenience of the Kindle and the iPad. So the really privileged writer is the one who is published by printing press and digitally! I am one of those so blessed! ‘What If We Don’t Die’ will be published in both forms! In a few weeks it will happen!  Watch this space!

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