World Book Day
Yes, once more it is World Book Day. Being a professional bookseller and a lifelong reader (I demanded entry to the big people’s part of the library at the age of five after exhausting the children’s books, precocious little tyke that I was) pretty much every day is book day for me. There is almost literally no day where I will not read at least a few pages of one of the several books I have on the go at any one time. Too many worlds to explore to stick to just one!
Books, of course, are not a new idea and have been around in one form or another for millennia. They really came of age when Gutenberg perfected moveable typefaces however. For the first time in human history books could be reproduced perfectly an almost infinite number of times. What had been rare objects accessible to only a few became commonplace. Literacy grew, so did the number of books. With the growth of both came more and more ideas, taking a candle and stoking it into the bonfire of the Enlightenment as people geographically removed – and temporally too as books cross time as well as space – could exchange ideas and build on them (would we have our advanced science without this ability? No). The web page you are reading wouldn’t exist without this idea.
Humans are hardwired for language; it’s in the very structure of our brains. Deaf children denied being taught sign language have often invented their own, it’s a genetic impulse. Who knows how many millennia of human pre-history passed before writing evolved from earlier systems of simple record keeping? Writing gave to humanity a form of exo-somatic memory; that is the ability to store knowledge and experience outside of the mind. Thus when the elders of the society died their knowledge was not necessarily lost with them. This is how the giants of the Classical period have been preserved for us and passed down through thousands of years. Mass printing and finally the information age made this system of knowledge preservation and access open to most people. It literally – do excuse the pun – changed the world. Think about it next time you hold a book; we’re so used to them we don’t often spare a thought for how marvellous an invention they truly are. Indeed just how wonderfully remarkable the gift of writing and language are.
So much for the big worldview. What have books done for me on a personal note, if I may so indulge myself for a moment? There are things I have never done and places I have never been and yet I have done them all and a great deal more through the written word. I have walked the stone halls of the great library of Alexandria, past rows of scrolls lit by flickering oil lamps. I have sat on the sun-warmed steps of the Academy listening to Plato and Socrates discourse on a warm Athenian afternoon. I walked beside Gilgamesh and sailed with Captain Cook. I’ve watched the earliest humans struggle to master writing. Before humans I ran alongside a Tyrannosaur and patted the head of a friendly stegosaurus. Before that I played bowls with newly formed planets by the light of a newborn sun.
I was watching when the Wright Brothers made their first spluttering flight at Kittyhawk. I trudged through the mud and blood of the Somme and watched Custer at Little Big Horn. I’ve flown on bat wings from the parapets of Transylvanian castles and on supersonic wings on an X-craft, faster than a speeding bullet. The oceans have given up their mysteries to me as Nemo guide me beneath the waves. I’ve walked beneath alien suns and turned up the collar of my raincoat against the grim, city rain as I followed Sam Spade. The howl of the hound of the Baskervilles has sent thrills down my nerves; I‘ve heard the Call of the Wild.
I have been both Jekyll and Hyde, a samurai and a knight, a cop and a robber a cowboy and an indian, god and the devil. I’ve thrown apples at Newton and slid down the helter-skelter of the double helix. I dared the gods and created life. I charged the field of Bannockburn and sat in the first audiences in Paris as the Lumieres showed their films. I’ve examined the artwork on cave walls and in Egyptian tombs. I’ve crossed the burning sands of the desert by day and haunted the dark mists of old graveyards by night. I’ve defended virtuous maidens from dragons and bitten other maidens on their necks by the light of the moon. I’ve flowed in prose and rhythmic rhyme, sailing across thousands of years; time, history, culture, life and love and death are no barrier. I was there when Adam woke in the Garden. I saw Lucifer fall. I’ve seen empires rise and universes end.
Sometimes through my life silly people have asked me why I read so much. I feel sorry for them, small beings with weak vision, lost in the dark without a lamp and they don’t even know it. Enjoy a few paragraphs before sleeping tonight. And think on me running through the lines and slinking around your verbs, dancing with the nouns and joking with the adjectives. Happy book day.