National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, a day when we celebrate one of humanity’s oldest forms of art and expression. Many of our greatest stories, such as the Iliad, have come down to us through poetry, preserved against millennia in verse, a form which helped the original oral bards to memorise astonishing amounts to recount, long before anyone was able to write down those tales into the forms which we still know and revere today, cornerstones of our culture.

Sadly when I mention poetry with all too many people I see the eyes glaze over and comes the almost inevitable phrase “I don’t like poetry”. No matter how often I have heard this it always makes me sad that so many people – including a lot of my fellow booksellers, I’m ashamed to say – make such an ignorant statement. Ignorant because I don’t think most of them really know what they mean by that – what I think they mean is they hate what little poetry they have been exposed to, more than likely something they were forced to learn at school. Regretfully these experiences often put people off exploring more and so they cut themselves off from one of the earliest and richest forms of human expression. Me? I’m a book person, a wordsmith; I love words and imagery and the way words can be woven like a magic incantation to call forth vivid descriptions of people, places, wring emotions from us, touch us deep within, in the inner places of our essential selves.

The best prose writing does this. The best poetry does it even better, especially in the realms of emotion; poetry, like jazz, has a way of weaving around the mind and soul. It requires the cognitive faculties of the brain to process and analyse and understand the words, the rhythms, the meanings, but it also bypasses the waking mind to speak directly to the subconcious mind. The best poetry speaks to both the active mind and at the same time to the deeper, dreaming mind. Throughout earlier history words and writing were seen as a form of magic. They were right. We’re built on words, on stories and phrases, we construct all the events of our lives into narratives and words. And the ability to put words together into special sequences marked out someone as special – the bard who wandered from city to city in the days before mass printing, telling stories, words that spoke to people, that cast illumination over what it is to be human. The coming of mass printing by Mr Gutenberg spread literacy and books across the world rapidly. The wandering storyteller gave way to the printed author (although poetry spoken out loud remains the best way to experience it, really), but the book and the words became even more important in our culture.

Which is why my favourite poem is Tessa Ranford’s The Book Rediscovered in the Future. It speaks of the wonder not only of words but of the actual book itself, the feel of it in your hand, the simple delight in being able to carry your words with you, of finding an old book that belonged to someone else before. That feeling you get when you look inside an old book and see that someone before you had written their name and maybe a date into the inside page. Sometimes it is only a few years ago, sometimes a few decades; in a few old ones I have it’s almost a century. In a couple it is also personal for me – a book my grandpa had given to him as a prize as a young boy, still on my bookshelves, a physical and emotional connection to a loved one long gone but a part of him, from his younger life, still here, the pages he touched, the words he read, his name on the page… As publishing faces the changes of the digital age Tessa’s poem seems even more relevant than when I first read it several years ago. This is a feeling a digital book simply cannot give you; an e-reader or iPad may be a clever toy, but it feels to me like it reduces a book to a mere consumable, ephemeral, untouchable, not like a real book to feel, to touch, to pass on…

Edragil 1745 03
(inner page of a book given to my grandfather when he was just a boy, still in my possession)

One day in the future

A child may come across a book

And say: “Imagine being able to hold

In your hand what you read,

To carry it with you and wear it out

With your life; to pass it on

Bearing your marks, your name,

Written in ink, your signature:

Your wavelength in letters.

Tessa Ranford, “the Book Rediscovered in the Future”

The travelling of books

Can it really only be a centuries since Gutenberg gave the world it’s most incredible and enduring invention, print? How swiftly books, that literary fire that the Prometheus of Print gave to us, came to be entrenched in our civilisation. For all our talk of the decline in public libraries and the quality of literature in our bookstores (or perhaps book department stores would be more appropriate for some) the book still holds a pre-eminent place in our cognitive landscape. We use them every day, be it for study, work, knowledge or simple pleasure (I count myself profoundly lucky my job means that all of these categories often apply to me). Even the least bibliophile among us often still respect the written word; it has authority, it has a form of permanence; we read the new but always we refer back to what came before, knowledge and ideas bound within pages as a sorcerer would bind a spirit, freed by the magical application of reading.

Moveable type freed ideas and opened mass channels of communication in a way humanity had never know. Increased literacy and availability of books coincided (no accident) with a flowering of new knowledge and greater understanding of the old. Most important was that books allowed information to travel; a reader in a Parisian Salon could debate the works of Hume in Edinburgh. That reading and debate would bring around yet more books and more ideas; print became a tinderbox to the human brain, ready to ignite in a flame of notions. Books travelled through languages and continents, trailing ideas in their wake. Equally importantly books travel through time; not just the preserving and dissemination of ancient knowledge and classic tales but the actual physicality of a book itself.

Wandering around some of the second hand and charity shops in Edinburgh recently I found some lovely, battered old hardbacks. There is something special about old books; the slightly musty scent is comforting while the thought that this book has passed through so many hands over the years is a delightful one. There is something simply wonderful about finding an old book which still bears the imprint of a former owner. One I picked up was a ninety year old copy of Gulliver’s Travels (one of the finest fantasies of all time and one which still holds many socio-political commentaries germane to modern society as they were to Swift’s). I have a modern paperback of this but I couldn’t resist this old book which so obviously needed a new home, its red cover faded around the edges and the spine with its gilt lettering and ornamentation washed out from years of light upon the bookcases shining upon it.

Inside the cover there was a bookplate – it had been an award to a school child, long ago. “Gloucester Education Committee, Linden Road Council School, presented to Carl Hurley for Efficiency and Regular Attendance during the School Year ending October 31st, 1913. I wonder who Carl was? I wonder if he enjoyed reading of Gulliver’s encounters with Lilliputians and educated horses? What sort of life did he lead? Was he dragged into the horror of the trenches just a few years after being gifted this lovely book when it was still new, the gold lettering still shining? Did he survive to pass the book on to his own children in turn or was it given away to a book dealer by grieving parents as they cleared his room?

A few years ago I found a small stack of books hidden away in my parent’s home, which surprised me since I thought I knew all of the books there (most of them being mine after all!). Quite a few of them turned out, like Gulliver’s Travels, to be school prizes given to family members. Several dated from the early 1900s and bore the bookplate inscribed to James Gordon, my father’s father, when he was just a boy. He passed away when I was still very young; although I have no real memories of him I’ve always felt I knew him. One of my earliest memories of him is looking at old photograph albums with my parents and seeing him; I knew right away who he was, I just felt it. My parents told me that not long after he died they could see me sometimes in my crib, acting as if I were looking at someone and listening to them. The familiar scent of my grandpa’s pipe tobacco would always be lingering on the air at these times. I have no idea if this was wishful thinking on my parent’s behalf or not, but it would be nice to think he did look in on his newest grandson.

Real or not, I’ve always felt a connection to him; I have his gorgeous, solid gold pocket watch still, which bears both of our initials. I only wear it on very special occasions as the mechanism is too delicate to bear daily winding now, but it always makes me feel like he’s with me when I do. Some of his old medals are still there too; he was a gifted first-aider and medals comemerated his work, especially driving ambulances during the war (he was on duty in Clydebank the night the Luftwaffe came for the great shipyards of Glasgow). Obviously all these things are precious to me, but finding books with his name in them was even more special, his imprint there on yellowing pages now in my hands, the letters before my eyes; both solid and emotional connections between the then and the now.

Another books bore an inscription from a young girl to an uncle I never even knew, signed and dated in the early 1900s in a sanatorium near Glasgow. As I read it a letter fell out from between the pages – it was from my uncle to the girl who had given him the book. They had obviously shared time together in this same sanatorium, but there isn’t anyone now in the family who knows what happened nearly a century ago. My dad’s elder sister has a vague recollection of an uncle who died very young, so we think it was him. I don’t know what he died of and how he got on with the young woman he obviously bonded with, but I do have the book and the letter in his own hand, putting him back into the family consciousness after a century asleep between the pages.

And that is one of the most remarkable things about good books, the way they endure and pass through time; its one of those wonderful extras that old books bear and new books may gather as they age, moving from reader to reader through the years. It makes me wonder who may be reading some of my favourite books from my shelves decades from now and what they will think of them. Will they enjoy them as I did? Will they wonder at who read them before they had them, what they were like, what they did? At the bookstore in the Book Festival recently I picked up some small pamphlets of Scottish poetry, including one by one of my favourite modern Scots poets, Tessa Ranford, who understood all of this and expressed it perfectly in “The Book Rediscovered in the Future”:

One day in the future

A child may come across a book

And say: “Imagine being able to hold

In your hand what you read,

To carry it with you and wear it out

With your life; to pass it on

Bearing your marks, your name,

Written in ink, your signature:

Your wavelength in letters.