Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Long Live the Book

The Book is Dead; Long Live the Book
By Trevor Agnew

The news of the book’s death has been greatly exaggerated. Mark Twain, as keen on new technology as anyone, would have chuckled at the way books are regularly declared extinct with the advent of radio, television, computers, the internet, blogsites, video-recorders, DVDs and electronic books. All these have certainly brought changes but more books than ever are being published. Have you ever tried to read a novel in electronic format? It’s impossible to enjoy in bed, bath or armchair.
Are books doomed? No, they’re not. Gutenberg and Allen Lane (creator of “a Penguin paperback for sixpence”) have seen to it that books have become vital ingredients of everyday living

You go to the bookshop or library, choose your book and read it at your own pace. The problem with television is that it is a medium over which you have little choice of content; that goes to the commissioning producers and programmers. And there is no way to flick through a programme. DVDs and audio-tapes are complements to books. They can’t replace them. Nor can the World-Wide Web. The idea that a few internet terminals might replace a library of books was proved to be a fantasy by the Cambridge High School scandal. Only the most obtuse bean-counters now believe it.

Isn’t television really trash? Quite a lot of it, yes. But then so is quite a lot of everything, even books. Television can be light entertainment, just like the novels of C.S. Forester, David Lodge and Mary Wesley that I regularly re-read. Television drama can also be superb. Flying to Arkansas recently I took along a pocket edition of War and Peace to relieve the tedium of flight. Ironically, when I paused to watch an in-flight movie, The World’s Fastest Indian, I realised that my idea of Pierre is firmly based on Anthony Hopkins’ performance in the epic BBC dramatisation of the 1970s. Back then, VCRs and DVDs were things of the future. Now we can record TV moments that impress us, but high above the Pacific I found that I still carry that TV vision of Tolstoy’s characters in my memory; they sparkled as I read.

I’ve seen three separate BBC serials of Vanity Fair, each splendid in its own way. Interestingly each resulted in massive sales of Thackeray’s book, a reminder that while TV may give us an impression of a novel’s plot and characters, it is to the book that we return when we want the descriptions, the style, the motivations and the full richness of the author’s vision.
The best dramatisation of any story is always the one created in the theatre of our mind, as we read. Recently it was suggested that children could benefit from meditation sessions. Actually schools have already provided this valuable service for generations; it’s called silent reading.

Documentaries are an area where TV can be superb. In The Ascent of Man, 33 years ago, Jacob Bronowski waded in to the crematorium pond at Auschwitz, where the ashes of murdered Jews had been dumped, and scraped a handful of mud from the bottom. “Many members of my family died here,” he said as the mud flowed through his fingers. It was a moment, unscripted and spontaneous, that was heart-stopping. Yet it was only one of many such moments brought vividly into our homes on the small screen. Think of the impact of Jamie Belich’s The New Zealand Wars series. Think of the power of TV news: the fall of the Twin Towers, Jonathan Dimbleby’s revelation of the Ethiopian famine, the Beslan school massacre and the passions revealed in the 1981 Springbok Tour footage.

Within TV the costs are so high that the creator loses control to backers, producers and directors. When Martin Baynton’s wonderful Jane and the Dragon was turned into a TV series, he had to fight to stop the BBC replacing his red-haired heroine with a blue-eyed blonde! On the other hand Margaret Mahy found working with South Pacific’s Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan to jointly develop a book and script of Maddigan’s Fantasia so rewarding that she had a tribute to them included in the book, Maddigan’s Fantasia.

Books certainly have plenty of enemies. Oddly enough these even include booksellers.
Big book chains’ head offices decide what stock they will carry. Thus Borders in Riccarton is little different from Borders on 3rd Street, Santa Monica, which is bad news for all but the biggest New Zealand publishers. At the same time, the internet means that books can be located and purchased worldwide with relative ease. Ironically this places the small independent booksellers even more in jeopardy. As an act of support for civilisation, everyone should go to an independent bookshop this week and buy a few books.

I have watched and written about television since the 1960s, but I could live happily without television. I have been reading since before I started school and I cannot imagine life without books, bookshops and libraries. Last birthday my daughter Margaret made for me the ideal gift: a bookcase with an inscription from Anna Quindlen, “I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookcases.”

There can never be enough bookcases.
Or books.

Trevor Agnew

This piece appeared in The Press, Christchurch NZ on 20th July 2006.

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