Thursday, 22 October 2020

'The Secret Life of Books' - Tom Mole

We have always been a world that loves books. Nothing seems capable of replacing them. E-books have tried but the sales of even the biggest authors are always far lower than those for real, physical paper books. We have a multitude of ways to distract ourselves these days, from computer games to endless streaming channels, and the internet means we can do pretty much anything we want without needing to leave our houses. Which is handy in these pandemic days. But physical books remain a staple of our culture. 

Which is curious, really. Books are terribly old-fashioned. These analogue, paper things with printed words. You have to manually turn each page yourself, eugh, how exhausting! You have to pick the thing up, and interact with it, and skim backwards and forwards if you want to check something. Jeez, how little do you value my time? A paper book! These things have barely changed in format since the 1450s when Gutenburg perfected his printing machine. Books are pretty much as old as the dinosaurs. 

Of course, I jest. I love books. And all of the reasons listed above are surely the reason why everyone else clearly loves books. We love the simplicity of them in their very being. And that's aside from even considering the content. These papery blocks have the ability to teach us new things, to transport us to new worlds, to allow us to escape our own tedium... to do pretty much anything. Of course we love them. That's why most of us go to bed with at least one every night.

And that's where Tom Mole's new volume The Secret Life of Books come in. Published on 29 October by Elliott & Thompson, Tom (who is the Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Edinburgh, of course he is) has written a stylish and captivating study of the book as an object. The smell of books, the relationships we build up with other people through books (that we give/share/study), the books that were so terrible they needed to be banned (oh, save our souls). And much more.

Tom's ode to books and, as the sub-title says, why they mean more than words, is a lovely tribute to these most simple of objects. Of course, to a writer, a book is a complicated, sweat-inducing, nightmare of a thing from which you can, at best, hope to break even financially; to a publicist, a book is a gem that must be made to stand out from the crowd; to a retailer, a book is an item of stock that you hope finds the perfect home (perhaps in the same way that a pet shop owner hopes that rabbit finds a child who will treasure it). But to a reader, a book is simple. It is an uncomplicated and affordable collection of pages that has the potential to change your life. And this is what Tom explores in The Secret Life of Books.

The celebration of books in books is nothing new. There are innumerable miscellanies about books, libraries and so on. There are endless 'top 10 books you must read' lists and so many variations of books about books. So it is quite something that Tom has managed to make his stand out a little. It is beautifully written, drawing on personal experiences and his academic background to reinforce his points and flesh out his arguments. As you would expect from an English professor. But this is a book for anyone who loves to read. And, as I said at the start of this, surely that's most of us?