Sunday, 3 May 2015

The New Immortality

"Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit. There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication.” (Laurence Durrell)

Leslie Thomas wrote a delightful travel book called “Some Lovely Islands” about his spare time hobby, of visiting small little Islands across the British Isles. They are notable not least because he visited Herm and spoke to Major and Jennie Wood, and went to that most inhospitable of Islands, Skellig Michael, at a time when the lighthouse keepers were still resident in three month stints, before automation.

He talks about “collecting” small Islands, and this is very much what this travel book does, it is a snapshot, a microcosm, of life on those small Islands at one point in time, 1968 – it was reprinted in 1982 and 1984 causing some confusion.

His book “A World of Islands”, 1983 goes further afield, and is still a delight, but his first book, “Some Lovely Islands” is unfortunately only available through second hand copies. “A World of Islands”, by contrast, is available on Kindle.

Unless it is put into an electronic form, “Some Lovely Islands” will languish, becoming rarer, and obtainable only through increasing difficulty as second hand. The second hand paperback copies, it should be said, are not expensive, but it is a paperback, so even with the best will in the world, some deterioration in the binding glue over time is more likely, making it less likely to be put up for sale.

I was pondering this – how some books vanish from circulation, and others gain what is a measure of immortality.

I like detective books of a particular kind, and John Penn was an author who I enjoyed, whose writer was based in Jersey, and even had one story where their detective came to Jersey, and was told about the honorary police etc.

That’s not yet available electronically, although attempts are being made to secure the rights to publish as an e-book. But that can be difficult.

The same is true of the excellent “Masters and Green” books by Douglas Clark. Still available in hardback and paperback, the only way to read them is to collect those editions second hand, and some are difficult to find – I know, I’ve managed to track down most of them, but with difficulty on one or two editions.

Libraries have clear outs of old books, and while John Penn and Douglas Greene’s books both existed in Jersey’s library, they have now vanished.

Veronica Black’s detective books, with a setting in Cornwall, and a nun as a detective, have suddenly surfaced as Kindle books, and are all available at a modest price.

More famous authors often migrate to at electronic form even after their death. Most of George Orwell’s oeuvre and J.B. Priestley’s works are available, although in the case of the latter, sometimes the introductions to particular collections – his Time Plays – are not available, so that the authorial intent and discussion is lost.

Other books, written and published on a smaller scale, such as Dick Tahta’s wonderful “Ararat Associations” are not available as e-books.

Older writers, out of copyright, like G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Lewis Carroll whom I grew up with are sometimes available on Gutenberg, but increasingly also with Kindle editions of the complete works, making them wonderfully accessible. You can not just read “Father Brown” and the “Man who was Thursday” but also Chesterton’s political writing, and the “Ballad of the White Horse”.

In days gone by, I occasionally added to my Chesterton collection at second hand book shops, and there was a joy in that which I do miss, but I also enjoy being able to read books and articles which I would probably never have come across at all. There is both loss and gain in electronic formats for books.

It is curious how some books will achieve a kind of immortality for their authors, because space for an electronic edition is minimal and the cost of keeping it available is likewise very small, while on the other hand, some books will become increasingly difficult to find, and will be lost to obscurity.

But for now, while I have copies, I can still enjoy books like John Sladek’s “Black Aura”, a tongue in cheek detective story investigating murders at a séance, David Kossof’s wonderful “Masada”, a historical fiction that captures the history and is so beautifully written, and Charles Downing’s retelling “Tales of the Hodja”, with illustrations by Papas.

I don’t think print books will ever go out of fashion, even if we read more electronic versions today. Some huge books – Stephen Jay Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Diarmid Maculloch’s “History of Christianity” are actually more accessible in electronic versions.

But older books that do not have an electronic analogue, a e-book version, will gradually drift into obscurity, perhaps revived when TV and film makers are looking for fresh ideas to adapt, but most probably vanishing from the public gaze forever.

Second hand bookshops used to exist in plenty. Now those that exist have an online presence to sell to a wider market, those that have not have mostly vanished. There are usually book sections in charity shops, but without the diversity, the same as at car boot sales, where the same tired copies of Dan Brown sell for 50p.

The only bright light is our own Guide Dogs for the Blind Biggest Book Sale, held in Jersey in October to raise money for the charity, where the diversity and range of books, including local books, is wonderful. And sometimes I alight on an obscure book there, which I have known existed, but have never seen a copy or come across online.

I’m still looking for a reasonably priced copy of “A Boolean Anthology” by Dick Tahta, and live in hope that one day I will find it. And I have only memories of a wonderful mathematical article by Dick entitled "Idoneities", combining mathematics with the artistic. Some books are raised to electronic immortality, but others are lost, waiting the call to emerge from the shadows, Lazarus revived from the dead.

1 comment:

James said...

The only bright light is our own Guide Dogs for the Blind Biggest Book Sale, held in Jersey in October to raise money for the charity, where the diversity and range of books, including local books, is wonderful.

Regrettably I heard that Ken Syvret is stepping down and unless someone takes over the reins there will be no more sales.