The vast crowd of book lovers at the Kolkata Book Fair is a bewildering sight. The enthusiasm and fervour with which people participate in the fair confirm that the book has fought hard against the electronic intrusion and it is forever. Despite rising sales and awareness of e-books, the hard copy called book continues to be ever so popular.
Almost six centuries after the printing press revolutionized the presentation of the written word, its power is still acknowledged. It is not certain whether the book was invented with the first wooden or stone tablets or from the more ancient papyrus scrolls or from the invention of printing in the middle of the 15th century. But books by and large were available in the form of scrolls, notably the Torah scrolls that the Jews use even today in their services.
The book became portable and thus conveniently readable with the development of printing. It thus became a friend of man, easily to be possessed. The internet and the e-book only revived scrolling. The form of the book might change, but its principal objective is enduring. Books soon became the core of reason and culture, thanks to Caxton. Milton said, “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself”. Prospero’s magic power was contained in ‘’my book’’.
It was the contents of the Bible that tore Europe apart in successive wars. The printed books like Marx’s Das Capital and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dream have dominated discourse over the centuries. So profound is the influence of books that its ancient and modern values are taken for granted. In a survey conducted in 2002 by High Wire Press, a division of Stanford University Libraries, the majority of participants said that they printed a research paper rather than read the online version. The excitement of flipping through pages cannot be equalled in scrolling through an e-book. If we have to read a book that made us emotional, we can squeeze it against our chest and sleep with it, dreaming about all the sequence of events.
We feel our books grow with us, the pages get yellow as we grow up. Despite Alvin Toffler’s prediction in 1962 that the printed word would soon die, the world has not stopped writing printed words, nor has it stopped producing machines which could destroy the world itself. There may be substance in Macaulay’s perception that ‘’as civilization advances poetry almost necessarily declines’’.
Ramendrasundar Trivedi expressed the same opinion in his essay, Mahakavyer Lakshman. Towards the end of the First World War, Oswald Spengler urged man not to write poetry in his The Decline of the West, but to produce machines instead. We have perhaps begun to realize the symbolism of Aeschylus’s play in which Zeus punishes Prometheus for bringing fire from heaven and giving it to man. However, our Faustian thirst for knowledge continues to grow.
The appeal of the novels of Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Walter Scott, Thomas Mann and Tagore is eternal. Tolstoy completed writing his War and Peace in 1869, but the novel still retains its grip over the readers’ imagination both in the east and in Russia. While this novel sings the glory of Christianity, it is at another remove, a record of the upsurge of Russian nationalism against Napoleon. Books are forever. It was the book that Solzhenitsyn wielded against Stalin’s assault on Russian civilization.
Prior to Marx, the greatest political influence on modern politics was Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Mein Kampf documented Hitler’s struggle to refashion Germany. The works of Bernard Shaw have always influenced the British welfare state. In spite of the influence of the electronic media, it is still through the book that writers express their thoughts. Thucydides and Herodotus enlightened us about Greece. To Tolstoy and Dostoevsky we owe our knowledge of Russia. Through Balzac and Proust we learn of France. Cicero once reflected: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”.
A great piece of literary art gives a new significance every time we read it. A line from Shakespeare can stir the mind even if we read it again and again ~ “thing of beauty is a joy forever”. The words possess the power to let us indulge in fancy for hours. To Milton, a book was “the precious lifeblood of a master spirit embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life everlasting’’. John Milton had advocated the “liberty of unlicensed printing’’. In fact, the heavy weight of printed knowledge can never diminish. Goethe’s “You must do without, you must do without”, or Tagore’s Ekla Chalo Re can still stir the mind of a frail person.
A sensitive mind cannot remember without tears the words of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra ~ “Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have/ Immortal longing in me / Methinks I hear/ Antony calls / Husband I come.’’ And one cannot go through Tagore’s amare tumi ashesh korecho (thou hast made me endless) without being in a trance.
(The writer is former Associate Professor, Dept of English,. Gurudas College, Kolkata)