Expert Comment: World Book DayThursday 7 March 2013
As World Book Day comes round again, Dr Will Rossiter, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool Hope, looks at the enduring appeal of the book.
'Don’t read much now…Books are a load of crap'. Thus wrote the poet and academic librarian Philip Larkin in “A Study of Reading Habits”. It is not perhaps the response one would expect from a man who spent his life amidst words and pages, but we need to be aware of Larkin’s irony here, and the irony that, up until recently, the only way we would have discovered this aphorism would have been by reading one of Larkin’s books, The Whitsun Weddings. The books Larkin is referring to, however, are those which are immediately disposable, what we would once have termed pulp fiction, which adhere to a certain formula which soon becomes stale:
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar.'
Such books always existed, as Francis Bacon noted in 1625: ‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested’ (Of Studies). One would hope that the books which the organizers of World Book Day, which is today, had in mind Bacon’s third category, which, as he explains, ‘should be read wholly and with diligence and attention’, as opposed to what he terms ‘the meaner sort of books’. However, the existence of World Book Day posits reading as a good in and of itself, irrespective of whether those books are the kind to be tasted or the kind to be digested, made part of oneself, which is worth celebration.
Yet the ‘book’ is not as static, ontologically, as once it was. A book was, for many centuries, a specific material object, whereas now we read books in a variety of ways, in a variety of formats, through a variety of media. The book, in this sense, is the content, not the medium In this we have perhaps returned to the medieval concept of the book, the importance of which was the matter, the sentence, as opposed to the object – an idea predicated upon the Pauline dictum that ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life’ (2 Cor 3:6). Thus, as another book (King Lear) tells us, ‘the wheel is come full circle’. Nevertheless, there was and is still a pleasure in the object, as any bibliophile can tell you: one need only point to the existence of illuminated manuscripts as evidence.
We might then conclude, contra Larkin, who was already contra himself, holding his tongue firmly in his cheek, that if World Book Day leads just one child to develop a love of the written word, then we can confirm that books are by no means ‘a load of crap’. To prove this, the English Department at Liverpool Hope, in conjunction with Liverpool City Council’s In Other Words Literary Festival, will be launching a lecture series on influential books and authors on April 23rd (World Book Night). We refute Larkin’s statement, and in its stead offer the bibliophilic words of the Renaissance humanist Ulrich von Hutten: ‘O saeculum! O litterae! Juvat vivere!’ (‘O world! O literature! It is a joy to be alive!’).