Whispers of immortality- The President’s address to the AGM: 5 July 2011

Colin Thubron

Filed under: Non-fiction

My predecessor Michael Holroyd turned his presidential addresses into miniature masterpieces of thoughtful levity. Mine, I fear, are in danger of becoming earnest, as we try to see the future of our writing profession and to assess the phenomenon that either troubles or excites us – the ubiquitous e-book. If the e-book does one thing, it reminds us that the process of reading itself is more important than the means by which we do it. But as a writer who travels, I’ve been reminded from time to time – in ways sometimes moving, occasionally unnerving – of the resilience (or otherwise) of those means, those books, in which our lives are still invested. I think of the Russian dissidents I met in the Brezhnev era, painstakingly copying out their samizdat literature for one another; while at the other end of the spectrum (and of Russia) Siberian natives distrusted writing altogether. There Omyakon, the coldest inhabited place on earth, has recorded a temperature of -97.8 degrees Fahrenheit. In such villages your breath freezes in mid-air and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call ‘the whispering of the stars’. In the extremest cold, they say, words themselves freeze. You are talking to somebody, and the sounds never reach them. They simply clunk to the ground. But there is a fantasy, too, that in spring the words unfreeze, and an eerie babel of conversations start up, although the people have gone. ‘

I remember too the Chinese peasant I sat beside on, a steam engine to somewhere-or-other, who asked me about writing books, and how much I earned. Then he began telling me about his own work, and I realised after a while that gently, solicitously, he was recommending pig-farming as a more profitable alternative for me.

But from time to time the book and its fortunes have impinged on my travels more gravely than this. Years ago in the Baghdad Museum I saw the fragmentary clay tablets of the oldest book in the world, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh from about 2,000 BC. These cuneiform tablets of a saga published in many editions seemed both sad and magnificent in their survival. They sounded, as it were, a broken voice in a language, Akkadian, which was not the author’s own, since he (or they) was Sumerian – for the textshad been imprinted a millennium after him. Many of these fragments have now been looted, but once again, the words have returned. For in the British Museum lies another and completer edition, from which the Epic was translated into English in the 1870s. Words have survived because they have been duplicated, whether in ancient Babylon or Victorian London.           .

Last April I found myself in Pergamum, a ruined Greek city in Aegean Turkey. Beside the vanished temple of Athena, goddess of learning, I came upon a series of overgrown rooms. A long, low bench was almost lost under the grass and a few holes gaped in the walls where bookshelves had been. The kings of Pergamum were famous bibliophiles, whose library here contained 200,000 volumes. Up to then, books had been written on scrolls of Egyptian papyrus, but as rivalry mounted between the great libraries of Pergamum and Alexandria, the Egyptians banned papyrus export. So, as early as the second century AD, Pergamum resorted to the use of skins. Skins, being thicker and heavier than papyrus, were unsuited to rolled volumes, and were thus cut up into pages and
folded into codices. So began the book as we know it.

Somewhere where I was walking in this ruined stretch of walls had stood the first modern library. After a century or two it was presented by Marc Antony (not a great reader) to Cleopatra (who may have been). It was absorbed into the great library of Alexandria, which went up in flames, and unknown codices were lost to us for ever because they had never been duplicated. Doubtless at this time those fond of the papyrus scroll lamented that the continuity of reading had been cut up into these scandalous things called pages.  Previously the papyrus book had unrolled vertically, like the computer screen. With the codex, reading had become lateral, as with the printed book or the e- book. Here one technology – the codex – had virtually destroyed another.

New technologies do not await permission. They are – in the words of the economist Joseph Schumpeter – agents of creative destruction, and are non-negotiable. Yet to imagine a technology as having a life of its own is to ignore its circumstances. The Jacobean philosopher Francis Bacon cited three inventions that had transformed his contemporary world: gunpowder, the magnetic compass and printing. All, of course, had been invented in China. But in China printing did not usher in a revolutionary future, as in Gutenberg’s Europe. Instead it sacralised and shored up the past, duplicating laborious commentaries on the Confucian classics, ponderous dynastic histories and the whole Buddhist canon in 5,048 volumes from 13,000 stone tablets.

In an obscure town in China’s north-west I remember wandering into a temple and coming upon the scrolls of 6,000 Buddhist scriptures. They had been bestowed on it by the Ming emperor in the fourteenth century, with the stone blocks inscribed for their printing. But I realised with a shock that by Chinese standards they were young. Printing was invented during the early T’ang dynasty in about AD 800 (using carved wood), and moveable type discovered two and a half centuries later by a certain Bi Sheng, employing little clay blocks.

Yet in this deeply conservative society it was only sparingly used. The enormous number of Chinese characters necessitated vast fonts. Most type was of bronze and wood far into the eighteenth century. For more than 1,000 years print and the manuscript benignly coexisted, as print and the e-book perhaps will.

Here is the story of a man who was saved by a book. Some 35 years ago, after a gruelling train journey from Rangoon, I was surrounded on Mandalay Station by a crowd of rickshaw drivers: men whose lives might last only as long as their stringy bodies held up. Then, among the raucous cries for custom, an old-world voice enquired, ‘Excuse me sir, would you care for a rickshaw?’ and I saw a face whose gentle features were inexplicable among those around him. He pedalled me round Mandalay all day, then back to his home and family – a poor place where a lonely shelf supported a little row of English novels.

It was then that he told me his story. He had come from a wealthy Burmese family, and after entering the army was sent to Britain for officer’s training. There he had picked up his military expertise and Etonian accent. Later he was posted to the north-east Burmese frontier to control the remnants  of the Nationalist Chinese, who were virtually bandits now. He and his platoon, he told me, were dug in above a remote valley. The night sentries had fallen asleep, but he was awake, reading an Alistair MacLean novel in the moonlight. Suddenly he heard a clink, and looked up to see the whole valleyside swarming with Chinese, so close that he could glimpse their teeth smiling in the moonlight. He alerted his platoon and his men mowed the Chinese down to a man. In those days Burmese officers wore swords, he said, and he drew his out and clambered down the slope. Then he became unrecognisable to himself. He began slashing among the dead and dying. on and on, as if mad.

Later, he said, disgusted with himself and with the army, he refused to sign an oath of allegiance to General Ne Win, and was cashiered. And so, ostracised, he became a rickshaw driver in Mandalay. His life, and the lives of his men, had been saved by reading a book in the moonlight. And I like to think that now in old age he has been able to afford an e- reader, and has access to some of the world’s wisdom – and perhaps a little of its silliness – as well as to all the novels of Alistair MacLean.

There is much nostalgic knocking of the e-book, but to the Third World it may be a godsend. In scholarly publishing, for instance, online access is the dominant way of delivery for many journals. Such technologies are a mercy to poor schools and universities. So are online lectures, encyclopaedias and reference books. But the promise of the e-book should come with a health warning. It is a warning about transience. The speed and ease with which information can be wiped out are unnerving. None of our contemporary computers can read the first floppy discs, and changes in technology already render many e-books extinct. In the mid 1980s the British Library digitalised the Domesday Book. Those discs are now unreadable: but the Domesday Book is still there.

In 2009 Amazon remotely deleted Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on a copyright issue from the Kindle users who had downloaded it. It betrayed the eerie facility with which files could be deleted. People complained that it was as if somebody had crept in and stolen their book in the night. Ironically, it is in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that government, censors send material down the chute called the ‘memory hole’ to vanish for ever.

And here is a final traveller’s memory: from the T’ang dynasty capital of Xi’an (where the terracotta warriors are). In a Confucian temple, 2,300 stone tablets, each higher than a man, record sacred texts and imperial edicts. This imperishable library accumulated for 1,000 years-after the Roman-era Han dynasty. Some tablets stretch in seamless avenues of black granite, eight foot high, inscribed with the Confucian classics. You walk down them as if through the memory-trace of a whole people. You cannot turn a page or unfurl a scroll. Incorruptible, they have outlasted generations of scribes and their Chinese whispers.

Perhaps the imperial Chinese were right not to consign their history to the fragility of inscribed silk or bamboo; nor we to rely solely on cyberspace as the repository of our collective wisdom. We must still hope that, as God said testily in the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Of making many books there is no end.’ Umberto Eco, when asked that rather irritating question by visitors to his huge library ‘Have you read all these books?’, tartly replies: ‘No, these are just the books I’m planning to read next week.’