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Artillery Row

Keep physical books

We have to protect cultural history

A couple of years ago, I had almost my entire collection of books shipped from England to Poland. They had been lurking in my dad’s attic but he understandably decided that he didn’t want hundreds of someone else’s books squatting there rent-free. So, I had to make my own decision: would I throw them away or have them brought to me? I haven’t had an easier dilemma since I had to choose between going to the pub and not going to the pub.

Part of it was sentimentality. I have a lot of memories wrapped up with those books — just as one does with a photo or an interesting shell pocketed on the beach. But I also had a conservationist instinct. Books are not like other objects. If a book is lost then a text might be lost as well.

Okay, I don’t need a copy of The Great Gatsby. If I had a sudden hankering to read the book I could order another one — or find one online. But what about Fred Trueman’s autobiography? What about a defence of astrology? What about a medical textbook from the 1930s? You can’t always find other copies of books, in a physical or electronic form. That Fred Trueman autobiography had been inherited from an old great-uncle who had lived in a big house that smelled of pipe smoke. How many other people have clung on to their great-uncle’s cricket books? Some, I’m sure, but how many?

I use a Kindle. After all, it can be hard to get hold of English-language books at short-notice in Poland. If somebody asks if I want to review a 500 page book on secularisation or Hillary Clinton’s new thriller I’m not going to ask them to wait for a couple of weeks until the books arrive.

But we can’t pretend that owning a physical book and “owning” an ebook means the same thing. If you actually download it onto your computer or a USB you’re getting closer. But if you have your ebooks sitting in your Amazon account and the company goes out of business, well — they’re gone. Amazon doesn’t even have to disappear — they can just close your account. Your possession of the text endures according to the whims of some cold-blooded landowner who might sell up or kick you out.

Then, perhaps most sinisterly, there is the extent to which you might go looking for a copy of a book that was written years ago — or a classic film and or TV series that was made years before — and find that it is quite different to how you remembered it. No one is going to sneak into your house, pull books from your shelves and start making revisions. But books that are being republished today can end up being heavily revised.

Yesterday, the Telegraph reported on how new editions of classic children’s books by Roald Dahl are being published after substantial alterations made according to the urges of a morbid and absurd class of people known as sensitivity readers. The Telegraph reports:

Language related to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race has been cut and rewritten. Remember the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach? They are now the Cloud-People. The Small Foxes in Fantastic Mr Fox are now female. In Matilda, a mention of Rudyard Kipling has been cut and Jane Austen added. It’s Roald Dahl, but different.

It’s important to be clear that these changes are not just presumptuous and self-entitled — they patently degrade the quality of the text. Witness how Dahl’s mild comic surrealism gives way to a joyless lecture:

Picture credit: The Telegraph

No one would deny that Dahl was a rather scabrous and even sadistic writer. But part of the fun of reading him, as a child, is grappling with the darkness — beginning to comprehend the shadows one has glimpsed around the world. These small-souled artistic vandals are flattening out those interesting quirks in the grip of a paralysing fear that someone, somewhere might read it and then take or give offence.

If Roald Dahl cannot even say that Mrs Trunchbull has a horsey face — because nobody has unsightly features or because we are forbidden from noticing them — what else could be changed? If books like Matilda and films like Gone With the Wind are being sliced and diced, what could happen to less famous and more genuinely provocative media? Hell, look at how Dahl’s publishers have decided that authors as illustrious as Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling — referenced in Matilda but now replaced with Jane Austen and John Steinbeck — are too dangerous to even mention in front of kids. Heart of Darkness? Kim? Won’t somebody please think of the children!

We need to keep physical books. Hell, we should even keep our DVDs. I almost regret getting rid of my videos — though God knows I wouldn’t have a means of playing them. Just as we want to own land that no one else can transgress we should want to own cultural land that no one else can meddle with. (Okay, I know we own such properties for as more physically powerful forces think it right or in their interests but let’s not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.)

Perhaps there is something a touch comic about fiercely wanting children to still have the chance to read about Mrs Trunchbull’s horsey face, but if we don’t take a stand where will this end? Besides, it might make kids more interested in reading if they think the book is really dangerous stuff.

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