Maguel on… the printed page

Last July I mentioned that I was starting an ongoing series on excerpts from Alberto Manguel’s The Library At Night. Well, better late than never, here is the second instalment!  And it’s a cheeky riposte to the rise of e-readers, which have (to my mind, rather inexplicably) exploded in popularity since this book was published in 2006.

Restaurant Car (c.1935) by Leonard Campbell Taylor

“Even the newer electronic technologies cannot approach the experience of handling an original publication.  As any reader knows, a printed page creates its own reading space, its own physical landscape in which the texture of the page, the colour of the ink, the view of the whole ensemble acquire in the reader’s hands specific meanings that lend tone and context to the words.  (Columbia University’s librarian Patricia Battin, a fierce advocate for the microfilming of books, disagreed with this notion.  “The value,” she wrote, “in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established.”  There speaks a dolt, someone utterly insensitive, in intellectual or any other terms, to the experience of reading.”*

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, pp.74f

*[I would point out that, reading Patricia Battin’s Wikipedia page, she is far from a dolt – and has even done a lot for the preservation of physical books, but I still agree with Manguel that what she says here is, to my mind, unsatisfactory.]

16 thoughts on “Maguel on… the printed page

  • March 25, 2013 at 1:02 am
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    What a brilliant idea for the series, Simon. I look forward to the future parts.
    And I do agree with Manguel, I’m sure all of us do (I hope). After reading: “As any reader knows, a printed page creates its own reading space, its own physical landscape in which the texture of the page, the colour of the ink, the view of the whole ensemble acquire in the reader's hands specific meanings that lend tone and context to the words” I just thought “wow”. It’s so beautifully written!

    I would also add the smell of the book to the things that create this unique “reading space”.

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    • March 25, 2013 at 8:12 am
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      Doesn't he write so beautiful, Agnieszka? I love reading his general thoughts on reading.

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  • March 25, 2013 at 7:53 am
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    Dear Simon and Agnieszka, I love physical books but I do not agree with Manguel's black and white good/bad division of the world. To call someone a "dolt" becuase they make a reasoned argument that emotionally you don't connect with speaks of both extraordinary insentitivity and intellectual blindness.

    Yours electronically etc.

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    • March 25, 2013 at 8:50 am
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      Simon I read your *, but my comment refers to what you have quoted Manguel as saying (his last sentence I mean of course) and I don't agree with it at all.

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    • March 25, 2013 at 4:27 pm
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      I do agree with what Manguel said about books but, of course, I don’t agree at all with calling anyone a ‘dolt’ (regardless if I agree with them or not). Thank you for pointing it out, Dark Puss and I do apologize for the uncertainty in my comment.

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  • March 25, 2013 at 9:28 am
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    What a lovely, cheerful painting! N

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  • March 25, 2013 at 10:37 am
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    I wonder what Manguel thinks of books in other formats, such as spoken word on CD or MP3, used by those who cannot read the physical book for various reasons, or even the characters in Ray Bradbury's novel Farenheit 451, who learn books by heart in order to keep the intellectual ideas contained within them alive. The readers will have a different physical experience of reading, but possibly not a different intellectual one.

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    • March 29, 2013 at 11:42 pm
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      Good question! I don't really have an answer or opinion, but definitely something to ponder on…

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  • March 25, 2013 at 10:42 am
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    Lovely picture and the book itself sounds wonderful – I agree strongly that the physical element of the book is really important and the wrong type of book can actually make the reading experience harder. Nothing compares with the feel and smell of a new book, or the worn, loved feeling of an old rescued book…

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    • March 29, 2013 at 11:46 pm
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      It is such a brilliant book for people who love reading and collections of books! I've been savouring for ages and ages now – so, by the time I've finished, I'll have forgotten the beginning, and can start again!

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  • March 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm
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    Clearly the physical experience of the book is important. At a very basic level, I have a copy of the Forsyte Saga that I am currently failing to read because the type is too small for my poor failing eyes!

    My experience of reading books in their early editions has been significantly different from reading modern reprints. So many physical aspects of the book – inscriptions, blurb, cover, font – inform my expectations of the book, and literally change the way I read. Often, the very lack of dust jacket and the obscurity of the book leave me with no idea of what to expect, and that is a very different experience from picking up a reprint which has informed me through cover and blurb what kind of book I will be reading. I think this does equal a different 'intellectual experience'.

    Oh nno! I've just had an incident with a cup of tea and a 1916 book! At least it was already sepia coloured. I guess I have just added another layer to the reading experience of that one…

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    • March 29, 2013 at 11:51 pm
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      Oh no! The 1916 book! Well, if history homework from year 6 has taught me anything, it's that tea just adds a nice ageing effect.

      A really good point about the blurb, cover, etc. I'm always so interested by how things like that frame and inform a reading – or even how an author's choice of title changes the way a novel is read. E.H. Young's 'William' is a definite example of that.

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  • March 25, 2013 at 6:45 pm
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    I try to put the e-book in to perspective by thinking back that other technological advances, such as the automobile and telephone, were once viewed with hostility and derision. I don’t have an e-reader and I don’t want one as long as I can still obtain physical books, but I do see how an e-reader can supplement the reading experience and be a real boon to people who have difficulty accessing physical books, have problems reading small fonts and/or who travel frequently and I agree with jaycee that the intellectual experience isn’t necessarily different even if the physical object is. I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 yet, but I know its premise and I like to think about what book I would try memorize if I had to be the oral archivist of only one book.

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    • March 29, 2013 at 11:52 pm
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      I have no problem with other people using e-readers, and I can definitely see that it would be useful for some people with reading difficulties, or who travel a lot – what surprises me is quite HOW popular they've been. That's what I find inexplicable – that so many people were dissatisfied with the technology of books as they were.

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