Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Burnside Writes

John Burnside confesses that the electronic page does not provide the experience he wants as a writer or for his readers.

Last week I attended a talk given by Alec Finlay, publisher and guiding spirit of the Morning Star Folios for the last several years. The discussion centred on the book as an art form, as a beautiful object in itself, as something more than the sum of its parts. I was there for interest, partly because I am currently engaged in a collaboration with an artist, but mainly because I love books and knew there would be a fair number of fine examples to look at and handle and enjoy.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I have no argument with electronic publishing: it fulfils many functions - social, political, educational, even aesthetic; it has the capacity to inform, enlighten and entertain; it is immediate, highly flexible, and may be interactive in ways a book cannot begin to be. And not to sound too pessimistic a note, I would also say that the future of the art book is also safe. There will always be those who want to make or own fine books, just as there will always be printmakers, painters, sculptors, poets - and artistic catalysts, like Alec Finlay, to encourage and foster collaborations between artists.

What I do have reservations about, however, is the ascendancy of all things electronic. For myself, I write poetry to appear on a page, in as finely-produced a book as the economics of publishing allow: I want the materiality of the book and the intimacy that comes with it; I want the feel and smell of the paper, the look of the page and even, in spite of a tendency to feel dissatisfied with past work, the fixed and unalterable quality of the book. A good book is an all-round sensual experience; quite simply, electronic messages are too lacking in physicality to compare.

Traditionally, a library was a depository for books: the very name implies that. In the future, I can see that this role will decline, as libraries continue to develop their role as information centres. Politically, economically, socially, this is what is being demanded of librarians. I do not believe it is worthwhile to resist such necessary change, even though I am chilled when I hear of (at least one) educational establishment which discards any book that has not been borrowed over a certain period. By focusing resources on electronic media, libraries can solve a multitude of logistical problems, as well as hugely widening their scope. The boundaries to the free flow of information, (and misinformation), are dissolving and, in spite the opportunities it offers to Nazi apologists and pornographers, amongst others, any improvement in communications must be welcomed.

All I would ask, from hard-pressed librarians everywhere, is that they keep a space for the book as object, quaint and old-fashioned as it may be, for those of us who just want to take it down from the shelf and open its foxed or dust-scented pages to a favourite well-thumbed page, and read, in the full sense of the word.