Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia and Last Essays. Oxford University Press, World’s Classics Series; 1961, UK. A hard-to-find little book that sits happily in the palm of my hand and which I would very much like to steal from the library. I am allowed to renew my borrowing period three times before I have to return it. Then I wait a few days and check it out again, and so even if I don’t own it I have the pleasure of its company almost all the time. The soft salmon-colored dust jacket with the black and white print on the front cover is exquisite.
I wonder if the robed and bearded scroll-readers of Alexandria wept at the advent of the codex. “Nothing good can come of this,” they might have said. “A single, elegantly contiguous manuscript is sliced up into separate leaves and you call that progress? It’s schizophrenic, that’s what it is.”
I like to think the situation more dire with the present shift from books to so-called e-books. It’s certainly weirder. We see that the disembodiment of books is part of a broader cultural retreat toward immateriality. Books, like musical recordings, photographs and so many other things, will cease to be physical objects at all and will exist only as electronic phantoms, passed from device to device but never from hand to hand. The notion that this makes an improvement on the old order is laughable. It smacks of annihilationism: one more milepost on the Manichaean march toward the final ghostification of all things.
I don’t intend to purchase an electronic reading device. I want to insist on the codex. It’s not only that I’m a sentimentalist, but I think we owe philosophical allegiance to the materiality of things. I don’t want a platonic beatitude. I want a real book in my hand, a hot cup of tea, a ‘friend’ I can physically embrace. They fool themselves who believe that digitalization better preserves texts (or recordings or images) against the depredations of time. Some day the dark ages will come again and we’ll see that nothing is saved by being made intangible. Materiality is the only condition of salvation.
Consider this series a sort of scrapbook monument to the codex. There’s irony in the bloggish venue, I know. It can’t be helped. But I want to honor books as discrete physical objects. In each case I’ll offer a photograph (or two) and description of a particular book. It need not contain great literature between its covers. It need only give pleasure to the reader or possessor of it.