A book is a precious object. Though mass-produced, each one is unique, with its own slight imperfections, all the more so if purchased used. What book lover hasn’t delighted in the unique smell of a book: the deep, husky smell of a used book, or the sharp, bright smell of a book straight off the press? Furthermore, books can be easily personalized by the reader: his or her name can be inscribed at the front, pages can be dog-eared or marked up, or they can become notepads, recording forgotten phone numbers and irrelevant doodles. They can be given to friends or passed down through the generations. To place books in a bookshelf is no different than placing original artwork in a frame. It’s meant to be admired and observed as well as read. Books are objects and adornments; they are some of the most original works of art.
The oldest book in my possession, Kipling’s not-entirely successful novel, The Light That Failed, is from 1898: a small hardcover, it betrays its age by the smell alone—musty, yet delightfully pungent. It reeks of faded love letters and starched petticoats. As you flip through the pages, you gaze upon a world that never knew World Wars or computers, had never traveled in an airplane or an automobile. It’s not just a story or a collection of words, it’s a time capsule, betraying its cultural moment through binding, type, and paper. It brings you that much closer to the world of 1898 as you read; indeed, you’re holding the same book someone plucked off the bookstall in 1898 (a name now lost to time), who could never imaging handing it off to someone in 2016.
Naturally, we lose this tactile experience as we increasingly switch to e-books. An e-book is no longer a book per se but a program, recording words and keystrokes in a haze of familiarity. It looks enough like a book to fool us, but we also realize something is missing. The book is a no longer an object, a work of art; it’s just a means of communication. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it changes how we read and what ‘reading’ even means. Technology is the ultimate game changer, and the game hasn’t changed since someone decided to write down words in a book—a prospect that must have horrified generations of oral poets. We lost something important then, too, the last time reading changed and became something more personal and less communal. Books became things, rather than a living tradition embodied in an actual poet or performer. The next step is beyond things and beyond existence—mere words in the Cloud, disassociated with their poets and worlds.
If the experience changes for the reader, then what about the writer? What happened when most writers switched from pen and paper to keyboard and screen? In a sense, nothing changed at all: the same words were written, the same stories told. You could never pick up a book and tell, with any degree of certainty, how it had originally been written—on a notepad or on Word. It all reads fundamentally the same. And yet something important is different: with computers, there’s no trace of the original work. Sure, we can save multiple drafts and even print them out and make notations, but imagine a world, not so long ago, when a story began with a single mark on a blank piece of paper (or parchment). What story did it tell?
Take, for example, the manuscripts of the poet Percy Shelley. The Bodleian Library at the
has Shelley’s complete
manuscripts, and thanks to technology, you can view them all online: http://shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk.
A poet rarely writes a poem in one go like a novelist might, but slowly,
clumsily, gropes his or her way toward understanding. We see this in his draft
of the famous short poem “Ozymandias” (1818), a poem so familiar from
anthologies that it seems engraved in stone. And yet, at one point it was
merely a draft, a collection of lines bouncing around in his head. The
manuscript reveals the painful birth of this amazing poem: in his unique
script, he writes at the top “My name is Ozymandias—King of Kings.” This line
appears toward the end of the final poem, but here, it seems to have occurred
to him first. Almost every single line that follows has been crossed out,
seemingly in frustration. One of the greatest poets in the English language was
having a very bad day. Only shattered remains of verse escape his cross-outs,
with the phrase “single pedestal” bobbing up for air (a phrase that occurs
nowhere in the final draft). In the margins of the page, orbiting the debris of
poetry, is a line that did make the cut: “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.”
But even in the draft, he didn’t know how to finish it (the rest is: “Half sunk
a shattered visage lies, whose frown,”). University of Oxford
Once the poem breaks off, the draft gives way to a massive doodle: a bunch of craggy lines that look like Sauron’s helmet from the Lord of the Ring movies. Elsewhere the draft is riddled with mathematical sums, as if he decided to do something more practical with this time. But that’s not all: the paper is thin enough to reveal writing on the other side; clearly he wrote this poem on the back of a letter. This shows us the poem is something he was toying with, random jottings that never quite amounted to a real work (at least, not yet). When we read the final poem in a book, or even on the internet, we lose all this: we don’t see where the poem came from, or how hard it was, or what else was absorbing his time. Only a first draft can do this, give insight into the work and the author. So what about the modern author...what breadcrumbs is he or she leaving for future generations? Or even more importantly, to his/herself?
Shelley’s draft could be framed as a work of art even without the poem attached. So could all our drafts, as they are more than just words on paper; they are a mirror into our writing process, revealing the very soul of the writer him/herself. Computers belie the fact that we all started from humble origins, with a draft that sounded like hackwork, full of misspellings and childish scribbles. In short, they make us look like professionals straight from the beginning. While this can sound quite attractive to those of us trying to make a go of this writing business, it also has a down side: we stop ‘doodling’ on our drafts. By this I mean we start writing on page 1, paragraph 1, and expect everything to become our next magnum opus. It’s all “for real” and even though we intend to edit, the document we begin on will be the one we complete. Psychologically, it might be more useful to start on something we know is ephemeral and temporary—on the back of a letter, or a restaurant receipt, or a napkin. If we didn’t take the writing itself so seriously, we could have more time to play—and discover our poem or novel or story along the way.
In the end, writing is about more than publishing or becoming famous or even being proud of your work. It’s about your relationship with the craft of writing. Relationships grow stale quickly and become stifled by routine. A good marriage, for example, only becomes good through time, patience, and a little improvisation. If you have the same conversation every day at the same exact time with your spouse, you’ll both start loathing each other’s company. Writing is no different: you have to coax it out, converse with it, play with it. Routine is necessary but dangerous. Starting too serious suggests a relationship that is all business, with no fun or spontaneity. And if you’re not having fun with your writing, chances are your readers are not exactly thrilled with it, either. So go on, have an affair...write the first sentence of a novel on a parking ticket; write a poem on the cover of the phone book. And if your computer finds out, never fear: he/she is easily fooled and will forgive you in the morning.