Magazine article The Spectator

When the Reading Had to Stop

Magazine article The Spectator

When the Reading Had to Stop

Article excerpt

Chance would be a fine thing, as the saying goes, if I could always be doing what I most enjoy in this feuilleton, which is sharing a few of my literary enthusiasms in the hope that readers gifted with a little curiosity and independence of mind might be persuaded to hunt out the various books and authors recommended. I was thinking, in view of the current, wildly successful murder-to-see-it production of Le Cid, of a puff for Corneille, whose star has been eclipsed over here of late by the flashier asteroid of Racine. I wanted to write about three Elizabeths, Taylor, Bowen and the author of Princess Priscilla's Fortnight, aka Gra.fin von Arnim, a tougher cookie than either the title of her novel or her title of nobility might lead you to think. I was looking forward, to expounding the delights of Guido Gozzano, known as `the Italian T. S. Eliot', but much funnier and nicer than the old Hollow Man himself and just as fine a poet.

A scatter of recent newspaper articles, however, has rather put paid to my coming on like the journalistic equivalent of a Jewish mother crying, `Eat! Enjoy!' For their common theme is neither more nor less than the impending death of books as we know them. Given the fact that authors of several of these pieces are literary editors, you might be forgiven for thinking they were a little downhearted at the prospect. Doubtless a book, considered in a purely practical sense, is a tiresome object to be tossing to and fro in the post to a reviewer, let alone to stack on the shelves of a cramped office, but don't these guys have some awareness of a tradition in which books form the essential masonry of a citadel against encroaching barbarism?

Depressingly, it seems not. Current amongst journalists, though not necessarily among their readers, is the notion that 2000, so far from being a calendar year like any other, will see us all washed clean of the wicked old past, our gaze thereafter turned with evangelical fervour on `the Now'. The millennium is to be the equivalent of that section of a Renaissance Last Judgement fresco in which the elect of God take their places beside the Apostles and martyrs and doctors of the Church amid an effulgence of gilding and expensive splashes of lapis lazuli.

By the same token the book, qua book, has had it. We are asked to envisage a future of screens and scrolling, of laptops and CD-Roms purchased from stores set out along the lines of present-day record shops with their browser troughs and userfriendly labelling. Reviewers will be asked to name their discs of the year, we shall boot up for the Booker and www. for the Whitbread, and the New Jerusalem for writers and readers will be a heaven poised somewhere between format and mousemat.

As a harbinger of this exhilarating freedom from the tyranny so long imposed on us by print and paper, one of the articles proposes the recent transfer of Niklaus Pevsner's Buildings of England series to CD-Rom. We are encouraged to salute the prospect of being able, instead of riffling through those wretched volumes with their wafer-thin pages and close print, to take out our laptops, slot in the disc and sit happily scrolling in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral, the gardens of Chatsworth or Magdalen College cloister.

I thought of this last week while visiting Beverley Minster, a place whose lines and harmonics challenge the descriptive resources of language. …

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