How we read

Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, by Andrew Piper, University of Chicago Press RRP$22.50/RRP£14.50, 208 pages

Paper: An Elegy, by Ian Sansom, Fourth Estate RRP£14.99, 224 pages

The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting and Why It Still Matters, by Philip Hensher, Macmillan RRP£14.99/Faber RRP$28, 304 pages

A declaration of interest: this article is written by a writer. I don’t say a good writer, but a full-time professional writer, and if you ask any representative of this dying breed how they feel about the apparent dissolution of print in the face of ebooks and websites, they will almost all say the same thing: they will tell you they are against it. Paper pages remind them of paper money: of the civilised advances paid before the electronic undermining of book prices prompted most authors to develop a sideline, usually teaching the profession from which they can no longer make a living.

But the attachment of writers to the old, tangible media is not just about money. The physical book seems like a fitting reward for the labour of writing a book. It is flattering that third parties – typesetters, printers, designers – are roped in on your behalf. A physical book represents closure, whereas ebook publication means becoming part of the eternal, energy-sapping flux of the internet. You have to do all your own marketing: blogging or tweeting about how great you are in defiance of all those childhood injunctions to be modest; and there are people out there who aspire to pick your work apart electronically, “remix” it in the name of some democratic hippyish ideal. If you become involved in that sort of interactivity, then you might have to spend a long time defending your vision or just lying awake and worrying about the assaults made upon it by people who, surely, ought to be making their own stuff up.

Fortunately we writers, being writers, can write about this. Whereas I don’t believe I have read a single work by a milkman lamenting that most people now buy their milk from a shop instead of having it delivered, books fretting over the death of print form one of the genres of the moment.

The shortest of the books before us, but the philosophical heavyweight, is Book Was There by Andrew Piper, a Canadian professor of literature. The title is a quote from Gertrude Stein that is even more irritating when written in full: “Book was there, it was there”, the point being that we were reading something or other at all the staging posts of our lives. Piper wants us all to calm down and have a sensible discussion about this “late age of print”, but he begins with such a compelling evocation of the tactile pleasure of a book, its “graspability”, that you think there could no arguments on the other side. He discusses a painting of 1864 by Adolf von Menzel, “one of the most sensuous depictions of the relationship between a hand and a book I have ever seen”. The hand actually obscures the book it is holding. The reader, holding a book, mimics the gesture of prayer. In ancient and medieval art, says Piper, the open hand is the sign of divine calling, and so when reading, we call out and are called to. Books are also proxies for our hands: they hold things.

The book is contained and finite, and the web is not. But there has always been too much to read. “Read much, not many,” said Pliny the Younger. In this and many other ways Piper shows the apparent internet revolution as being a continuum of book culture. He compares a typical web page with medieval manuscripts. They, too, “revelled in cacophony”. The roots of file-sharing are traced back to 18th-century London’s coffee houses. On the subject of this vaunted internet “sharing”, Piper makes the point that for sharing to have moral worth, it should involve sacrifice – a cost. “To this end, we need – brace yourself for this – to embrace DRM.”

Now the force of this bold culmination was lost on me because I didn’t know what DRM meant, and I’m pretty sure (in the absence of an index) that Piper hadn’t told me. I looked it up on the internet. It means Digital Rights Management, and refers to technology that blocks free access to copyrighted digital material. As a content-producer I entirely agree; my point is merely that Piper is very occasionally too nerdy. But after 150 pages of his deeply learned and measured argument I found myself shamed out of disagreeing with his contention that, just as the intersection of books, scrolls and human speech produced intellectual advance in medieval times, so the process continues today: “Expanding the number of channels through which our ideas circulate makes those ideas potentially richer.”

On the face of it, Ian Sansom’s book on paper is chronicling the shift to new media but he and his publishers seem conflicted about whether paper is disappearing or not. The book is subtitled an “elegy” for paper; but it is surtitled a “celebration” of paper.

Paper that has apparently been banished has a habit of coming back in the form of ... paper. I personally print out any important document I’m sent by email. Sansom, a critic and novelist, concedes in his introduction that while we have ticketless parking, ebooks and iPads, we also have an unprecedented number of paper books, paper cups, and all those desktop printers. He settles on calling his book a “personally curated Paper Museum”, but few curators are so engaging and dynamic. Sansom is interested in the paradoxes of paper, the way it is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. A piece of paper, he writes, “may be a priceless artefact – a painting or a manuscript – or a piece of litter”. It may bring good news; or a suicide note. And “paper allows us to be present ... when we are in fact absent” – by means of writing, that is.

Sansom is a “paper omnivore”, an admission he makes rather guiltily. Whereas paper was made from rags until the late 18th century, almost half of industrially felled wood is today pulped for paper. (He concludes that we should show to paper some of the respect we show to trees.) Sansom spent all his first advance on the full 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. He may well be a “bibliomaniac”, a word he applies to Gladstone, who apparently once walked into a bookshop and bought the entire stock.

Sansom invokes a vast amount of literature; fortunately he has a great taste in quotes. He cites a Herman Melville short story in which a typically vast and whitewashed paper mill resembles “an arrested avalanche”. In an article on bill-sticking, Dickens referred to an old warehouse, so plastered with rotting posters and paste that it had been “brought down to the condition of an old cheese”. Staying with literature (just about) we learn that 2.5m pulped Mills & Boon novels were used for the top level of asphalt on the M6 in 2003. But Sansom’s frenetic and amusing paper chase also extends to labels, tickets, wrapping paper, paper money, posters, paper art, and there is quite a lot of disgusting stuff about toilet paper, “the fastest-growing sector in paper production”.

The Missing Ink is, perhaps, more justifiably elegiac, being a highly readable, casually elegant look at a “modest, pleasurable, private skill” that “is about to vanish from our lives altogether”: the art of handwriting. Philip Hensher, like Sansom, is steeped in his subject. He once wrote a 300,000-word novel by hand. As a boy, he saw the signature of Elizabeth I, with all those zigzags descending beneath. It was “love at first sight”. He recalls first seeing his own father’s signature, which resembled “a knife in a wound”.

He notes that the teaching of handwriting has been sliding down the agenda since the 1980s. Hensher was taught it in the 1970s – the amiable, rounded, child-friendly style developed by Marion Richardson in the 1930s – but he “found faint disappointment in the no-nonsense f’s”. He gives a lively account of the handwriting movements allied to the development of paper commerce in the mid-19th century, namely Copperplate (which was built for speed, resembling handwriting in a wind tunnel) and its more upright successors.

Hensher finds it telling that Sherlock Holmes was a student of graphology, it being “a fantasy from an urban world, where almost everyone is a stranger, and almost anyone could be dangerous”. In the 1970s various mental health associations decreed graphology to be of “zero validity”. Searching for the most absurd pronouncements of the graphologists, Hensher finds one who found great significance in the fact that Hitler’s handwriting leant “extremely far to the right”. But he concedes that handwriting can reveal character, even if not according to fixed rules. (Why else do we write letters of condolence by hand?) Hensher finds virtue in the slowness of handwriting, and he cites evidence that if you improve a child’s handwriting, you improve his literary skills.

As a boy, Hensher drew meaningless wavy lines in anticipation of learning cursive handwriting. I myself did the same. Perhaps it is a characteristic of budding authors, in which case any parent uncovering pages so scrawled in 2012 should be worried. Their child ought not to have too much of a stake in the future of reading and writing in this frightening, fraught “late age of print”.

Andrew Martin’s latest novel is ‘The Baghdad Railway Club’ (Faber)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.