Square eyes

Another day, another ad in my in-box that informs me that e-book readers are now reduced in price at various retail outlets. I wonder if anyone has ever bought one, and if they have, whether they have ever used it. Not that I didn’t consider aspiring to one for about four and a half seconds while reading a rather fine article in The Week about the best ones on the market at the moment, before realising that e-book readers will not make me cool and futuristic, and are not going to do for books what MP3s did for music.

There, I’ve said it, and in four or five years I will no doubt be eating humble pie. But seriously, why would you spend £200 buying a machine that comes pre-loaded with a hundred ‘classics’ (half of which you are guaranteed never to want to read, because oddly enough all people do not like all books), and that thereafter you have to buy new content for, when books are cheap and last for longer than you will ever need them? I walked into a peculiar but excellent secondhand shop in Chingford station last month and bought a copy of Martin Chuzzlewit, dated Christmas 1927 (and presented, if you’re interested, by Winifred to Florrie), for £2.50. That book has survived 80 years and possibly several children. Alright, so it might have been well treated, but as another illustration, my friend Jos gave me a paperback copy of Kerouac’s On the Road eight and a half years ago, and it has since been read by at least six different people that I can count, stuffed in various rucksacks and even once been immersed in water for a while when Dave’s flat flooded back in 2004, and yet it still lives on. Nothing with a half-life and a plasma screen is going to match that any time soon.

Not that I think e-book readers will fail completely (and actually I don’t want them to – someone with ambition and vision has after all probably spent several years pinning their hopes on them), because as far as I can tell, we are all hopelessly besotted with screens.

The other week I was on a Eurostar from St Pancras to Gare du Nord. Every time I take the Eurostar (which isn’t actually vastly more expensive than taking a return trip to Leeds), I am delighted that a mode of rail-based transport so pleasant and uncomplicated has sprung forth from a nation that has been making trains shite ever since we invented them, but then I remember with a stab of national shame that the French were involved too, which is probably why it’s good.

I digress. What was interesting about our warm train, sliding through the dark towards Paris with its lights dimmed, was that in almost every seat was a screen of some sort, usually a phone or a laptop, though there was the odd travel DVD player. I wondered, (in that way that you do when you have two and a half hours just to sit and think), what would happen if you turned the carriage lights off. You’d still have been able to see, just in an eerie blue light emanating from all the screens, like the sad ghost of imagination humming around the carriage. A sort of blue version of that greenish tinge they have in the Matrix, except that it’s a filter that we’re so used to viewing the world through we don’t even notice it any more.

It reminded me of a trip to the British Museum with a friend a week or so before. We didn’t have very long, but drifted round some old favourites – the clocks, the Assyrian horsemen with too many legs, the statue of Amenophis III with Belzoni’s graffiti, the Elgin marbles and the Temple of the Nereids (both of which are lovely enough to make me guiltily thankful for the colonial shamelessness of times past). The trouble with the British Museum these days though is that you can’t stop and loiter by anything for very long, because you’re always in the middle of someone’s photo. Wherever you turn there are more screens, more hasty flash-past mementoes, and if you happen to stand in one place for too long then you’re spoiling the shot. Less is more, when it comes to holiday snaps.

The most fascinating thing is that nobody is actually looking at anything in the museum. Not with the naked eye at least. They frame it on a little screen and take the picture, admiring the object’s tiny digital self a bit like you might use an eclipse viewer, except that it won’t blind them, and they’re not watching mysterious celestial bodies but pale stone statues, shaped by the delicate hands of men who stood back and critically studied each chisel-stroke, and thought and loved as they worked; statues stripped of their paint and detail by thousands of years of wind, rain, cold and heat that have watched nations rise and fall, and occasionally been blasted to pieces by Venetians then reassembled by more careful men, who I always think of as wearing wire glasses. Nothing takes the romance out of something like a screen.

But then the point is not to see what’s there, but just to preserve it, organise it, label a hundred photos like it with some blanket album title on a hard drive somewhere then forget about them all. I realise this is a case of pot calling the kettle black, coming from a man who is rarely without a notebook and forever trying to record meaningless scraps of the world around me before they fade, but in my defence it’s the detail that concerns me. At least if you sketch or write about something then you’re processing it somehow through your own brain. There are also those people who make very good things on screens, but then they are still processing, creating something from the world and the events in front of their camera, rather then just recording something static and reducing it as if they were converting it into an MP3. Things that are easy to do are rarely worth doing.

Anyway, come 80 years, all the laptops, screen readers, 3G phones and portable DVD players of today will all be broken, vanished and replaced with something newer and vastly better, and someone will perhaps be paying a modest sum for my water-damaged Kerouac in a shop in Chingford hoverport. Bar natural disaster or nuclear war, the lapiths and centaurs will still fight for many centuries yet, and the headless Nereids and their temple will long outlive all the photos taken in the British Museum that afternoon

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