Reinventing the wheel, or recycling books…

November 20, 2014

As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that books are just as disposable as other items in our consumer culture, and don’t enjoy any special qualities as physical objects or, increasingly, in terms of their content. Lest that seem an incredibly sweeping statement, I’ll explain myself.

It seems each generation rewrites the books of previous generations. In science, technology and a few other fields, this rewriting reflects real advances in discovery. Sometimes in history, new documents shed new light, so some of the history written since the collapse of communism such as the books of Timothy Snyder or Norman Davies, to mention a couple of my favourites, does contain genuinely new and enlightening material. But otherwise it does seem as if writers are rehashing and re-presenting old wine in new bottles. How much does Ian Kershaw‘s work on Hitler add to Alan Bullock‘s, from the previous generation? How much does another history of the Reformation add to previous knowledge and analysis? I’ve appreciated Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s books, but what have they really added to Philip Hughes‘ books from fifty years ago?

It’s obviously more profitable to package and market new books rather than reprint the old ones. And new academics have to build their reputations and make a living. Research continues, but I do wonder just how much new stuff is really uncovered. A raft of new books on Jane Austen and Shakespeare appear each year; I used to be interested, but now I realise there’s precious little that’s new.

Novels are retranslated. I have really enjoyed, for example, the new translations of classic Russian novels by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but if they hadn’t been done, I’d have been perfectly satisfied with the previous versions. Similarly with the new translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum: yes, it was good, but until then, I’d been fine with the original one. So what have we gained, really?

This feeling of re-inventing the wheel is often brought home to me as I – increasingly rarely – comb second-hand bookshops in search of – what? There, I often see thousands of ageing and crumbling books, fusty, mouldering and unloved, and unsellable: most of them will stay there until they disintegrate or are recycled, because nobody wants them, and we have conditioned ourselves to think that books are precious and we shouldn’t destroy them.

I wonder what this means for the future. Perhaps digital readers and e-books are a good thing, perhaps the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are where it should be at. But the realisation that my treasured companions – my books, dammit – are consumer articles just like anything else, is rather too disturbing…

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