Saving the soul of the book

It is as important to preserve the written heritage of the past as it is to enrich it with the books of our generation. Safeguarding yesterday’s books while penning those of tomorrow.

The future looks like it’s going to be digital, and so the preservation of the past may also have to inhabit the digital space. Books are being digitised every day, the physicality of historical artefacts is reduced to digital files and web page content. The great disembodiment is underway. It is a necessary stage in the process of making sure that the past, or at least the memory of it, suffers as little as possible in the face of history. That no books get lost, damaged or destroyed, or if they do, that we may not one day think they never existed. It’s to make sure that, as Metallica put it, ‘the memory remains’.

But while everyone agrees that the body of a book must be saved, the same sentiment doesn’t always animate the injunction that a book’s soul should be saved as well.

the soul of a book is not simply the substance of the writing enclosed in it. Nor is it the experience of reading, a unique human activity, personal, untransferrable, unmediated. It is, above all, an irreducible collision of thoughts, the clash between the reader and the book, layers upon layers of immaterial fabric woven together in the softness of the printed page. The soul of the book, the mystical, forever baffling, journey of words lifted off the page. And nobody is rushing to rescue it from the carnage wreaked by the new technologies.

I’m not pessimistic. I think we’ll never lose the soul of books, even though we may come very close to it. It is not hard to imagine a world of digital books and digital artefacts, the entire heritage being digitised for instant access and maximum accessibility. But the closer we approach that reality, the higher our awareness will be that something is being lost or impoverished, and we’ll rediscover the value of context and body. The context of a work of art – the stuff that cannot live in binary life; and the body of the book and embodied reading, unduplicable and irrecoverable.

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