Malcolm admits he has tried, and failed, to use ebooks. Not on a desk-top, nor on a lap-top, nor on an iBook has he ever managed a complete text.
Scorning the odds, he even acquired a Kindle in hope of fourth time lucky. Everyone else seems to manage, but he found himself again struggling through a few pages, then admitting defeat and buying a hard-copy.
What an invention!
After all, he argues, if someone could invent:
- a cheap, light, portable, fully-recyclable device,
- capable of containing a megabyte or three, in full colour,
- with information logically organised, and capable of being fully indexed, foot-noted and the rest,
- which is also (at-least semi-)permanent — with luxury editions guaranteed for centuries,
- free from being rendered obsolete by technological advance,
- stores easily,
- is readily-available,
- has good aesthetics,
- and, at a pinch, is multi-purpose (door-stop, wedge, cup-rest …), —
— it would be hailed as a work of genius, sweep the world, and win every award, kudos and credit going.
Yet we have all of that, and more.
Heo cyðaþ on ðisse bec [circa 886-899]
It is called a “book”, and we Anglophones have been naming it in that word and its predecessors (bóc, booc, boc, bok, boke, booke …) these thirteen centuries.
And, no: it almost certainly isn’t a word derived from “beech”, on the assumption that some ancient was hacking slices off a beech trunk to write upon. As the OED dismissively puts it:
Generally thought to be etymologically connected with the name of the beech-tree, Old English bóc , béce , Old Norse bók < (seebeech n.), the suggestion being that inscriptions were first made on beechen tablets, or cut in the bark of beech trees; but there are great difficulties in reconciling the early forms of the two words, seeing that bôk-s ‘writing-tablet’ is the most primitive of all.
Which means our Germanic antecedents were calling books “bôkôs” before they gave Fagus sylvatica the name of bóece or béce. Admittedly, Malcolm only did that vamp [a] to flaunt some useless knowledge (or, rather. “book-learning”) and [b] to deploy that neat term “beechen”.
Familiarity breeds disrespect.
And so we get back to the Kindle.
It may just be that Malcolm has found a use for his otherwise useless appliance of Amazon (though a grandson, having destroyed his own, now casts an eye on Malcolm’s little-used one). All courtesy of the Observer‘s running column-filler, The 100 Best Novels.
There was an alternative draft of this sequence, courtesy of Robert McCrum. At a quick scan, Malcolm was prepared to admit to knowing about half of that list.
Then The Observer started itemising each one. It was immediately clear this was a different listing, and limited to he best novels written in English. Hence, Don Quixote (number 1 in McCrum’s straight listing) was by-passed. Malcolm began ticking them off. So far we have:
- John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress;
- Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe;
- Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels;
- Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa.
At which point, the Kindle becomes of use.
For Malcolm knows that the first three, for certain and in at least a couple of editions each, are in one or other of the five or six dozen boxes and Tesco’s lettuce trays that conveyed them up to York from London. Presently, shelving is going in for what Malcolm terms his “book-room” (and what the Lady-in-his-Life more grandly refers to as the “library”). So repurchasing yet another copy is an expense which cannot easily be justified, even in Malcolm’s addiction to Waterstones, Oxfam and the rest of the new-or-secondhand brotherhood.
But Clarissa? There might be a Penguin paperback somewhere in the boxes, but Malcolm is unsure. In any event, it must be decades old, for that was the last time Malcolm ventured that way.
Excuse to buy?
Possibly, but it’s an each-way bet, complicated by the commitment to persist through 900,000 words (McCrum’s estimate).
Hold hard! What’s this?
The answer to the maiden’s prayer!
What’s more, Gutenberg.com do the business is various formats, including HTML and Kindle.
Cut to the chase:
MISS ANNA HOWE, TO MISS CLARISSA HARLOWE JAN 10.
I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbance that have happened in your family. I know how it must hurt you to become the subject of the public talk: and yet, upon an occasion so generally known, it is impossible but that whatever relates to a young lady, whose distinguished merits have made her the public care, should engage everybody’s attention. I long to have the particulars from yourself; and of the usage I am told you receive upon an accident you could not help; and in which, as far as I can learn, the sufferer was the aggressor.
This may yet be the start of a boot-ti-ful friendship — as in “booting up”, an interesting metaphor in itself, abbreviated from “boot-strap” or, as the OED explains:
A strap sewn on to a boot to help in pulling it on or looped round a boot to hold down the skirt of a lady’s riding habit; a boot-lace.
Oooh, sexy stuff!
For a while there, Malcolm was about to offer the bon-mot:
Books do furnish a room.
He hesitated because he wanted, instinctively, to attribute it to Virginia Woolf.
On second thoughts, does it pre-date Anthony Powell’s title for the tenth of A Dance to the Music of Time sequence? Ah! Yes! Of course! That Poussin in the Wallace Collection!
Which doesn’t look good, at all, on the screen of Malcolm’s (low-status) Kindle: