Illumination

The kings are dead, the castle walls they built
Thrown down, their deeds confined to histories.
And yet in books, ablaze with gleaming gilt,
Their world endures. Seven centuries
Have not reduced their lustre: serf and saint
Still work and pray; fair flowers and bright birds
Leap from the vellum; poetry in paint
Illuminating vanished lives, lost words.
What gracious days were these, when books became
The currency of princes! In our age
Of email, text and momentary fame
Shall we condemn to death the printed page?
And when the last e-reader battery’s dead
Will anyone remember what we read?

 

On Tuesday, we played truant and went up to the British Library in London to see its exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Royal Collection. Apart from their remarkable age – most were medieval, but some dated from Anglo-Saxon times – and extraordinary beauty, I was struck by the fact that books were once luxury items, commissioned by the nobility as signs of their wealth and status. Seems to me we have a great deal to thank William Caxton for.
I think the e-book is a wonderful thing (although I’ve yet to succumb to the Kindle’s undoubted charms) but I still hope that reports of the printed book’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

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17 thoughts on “Illumination

    • They say e-book sales are set to grow 700% in the next couple of years…still, I think books can hold their own for a little while yet! And like you, I’m a sucker for bookshops. As Erasmus said: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” πŸ™‚ N.

  1. Hi Nick,

    This poem is as wonderful as the pleasure of opening a book and settling down to read.
    I do very much agree with your sentiments.
    There is something in the printed page which is a magic all its own. I could never give up my books for a kindle. I’m a sucker for the old, yellowed, creased and worn books that get forgotten in secondhand shops. I’ve found many treasures and much beauty that I don’t think you can replicate in the digital world.
    They may be convienant and open up a world of their own, but for myself they’ll never replace the printed word.

    Thank you. I’ve now a craving to sit with a good book. πŸ™‚

    Tikarma.x

    • Hi Tikarma – how lovely to hear from you. Oh yes, the second-hand bookshop; what a dangerous place that is! I think you’d have loved the books at the British Library; there’s something incredibly personal about them, and I really had the sense of looking at the same words and pictures that the original owners had seen – especially the Bible with notes handwritten in the margin by Henry VIII! N.x

  2. I love books, Nick, and we do owe Caxton a lot. I am not too worried about books disappearing, though. I would have never found your work, John Stevens’, David Agnew’s, Ina’s, Anna Mark’s, DoubleSimile’s, Betty Hayes Albright’s without the electronic medium. There is something wonderful that I have found all of you and others.
    But the truth is that I do not believe books will disappear. Not only will they continue to exist in places like the British Library, reminding us of manuscripts beautiful from older times, but publishers will keep on publishing. I suspect that the books of the future will be different in that they will be more craft and art than designed for everyman, but I suspect even bookstores will continue to flourish even as the giant big box chain bookstores disappear. The point is that having a book in hand is a pleasure that will continue to be pleasurable. Sitting by an evening fire with an epic poem is a joy that is not for everyone, but for me it is supreme delight, and you and I are not the last of our kind.
    Your poem asks an important question. It is also, like so many of your poems, a delight to read. New technologies do not really replace old technologies. You can still buy buggy whips. There are just not as many sellers of them. The cloud is also evolving, and who knows where that disembodied place of books will lead? I love the past, but I am not afraid of the future. I will be reading Nick Moore for a long time yet to come.

    • A very affirming response, my friend. My ‘mid-life crisis’ seems (perhaps fortunately, given the many alternatives) to be taking the form of a creeping fear of the new, especially gadgets that rely on electricity and electronics, which I’ve never understood and only embraced reluctantly and as far as absolutely necessary! As I’m sure you know, Henry Ford once said; “If If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’.” I guess my fear of so many new-fangled widgets is that they seem to be innovation for its own sake, solving problems that don’t exist and answering questions no one’s asked. So I love your suggestion that the books of the future will, once again, be works of art and craft; that warms my heart and lifts my spirits enormously on a cold Monday morning – as does knowing you’re reading my work! N.

  3. Hi Nick, what a wonderful poem, and you are so right! Those old books have so much extra an e-book never will have! Antique books, but also the modern ones.
    I don’t read electric books; the pleasure of sniffing the (ink on) the paper, being all cuddled up with a book on the couch, I can’t see me enjoying ebooks like that! A book is so much more than a text and images! I shall take a few good paper-made reads to England on holiday as well.
    Okay, what is playing truant? πŸ™‚
    Ina x

    • Ah, ‘playing truant’ – something of a national sport here in the UK. ‘Truant’ means to be absent without excuse, reason or permission; the classic movie ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ is perhaps its ultimate expression! It’s usually applied to schoolchildren, which I guess is why it’s usually referred to as ‘playing’ truant. Other synonyms you’ll hear when you’re over here are ‘bunking off’ and ‘skiving’; the latter is generally the preferred term for grown-ups, the perpetrators being known as ‘skivers’. And let me tell you, it felt good; there’s nothing quite so sweet as going off and enjoying yourself when others are at work – and you really ought to be..! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ N.x

  4. Playing truant is exciting! Well done for doing it!! And you probably got a lot more from your “truanty” day too!!

    As ever this is brilliantly written – I love “fair flowers and bright birds leap from the vellum”.

    Some of my family have Kindles and although I have tried I can’t seem to engage with them at all, though I appreciate how handy they could be when, say, traveling.

    But the first thing I do with a book is sniff and smell it, flicking the pages as I do this. When I have had my “fix” then I can begin to read. And all books smell different! I can remember specifically the smell of a “Girl” Annual I got for Xmas when I was about 10. I have sniffed annuals ever since but none of them meet it’s standard!!! (Yes – confirmation that I m as loopy as they come!!).

    And one of my favourite pastimes is going into a bookshop, browsing, having coffee there and then buying far too many books at once and not feeling in the least bit guilty about doing so! If this is ever taken away it could be like losing a limb!

    Christine x

    • You are clearly a woman after my own heart, Christine. And yes, I got far more out of the day than if I’d done what I was supposed to be doing… The feel and smell of books is really important; and there’s something about going into a shop, picking them up and physically handling them that’s missing from the whole e-book concept; there isn’t the same ‘commitment’ if you know what I mean. It’s like buying music; when I was young I spent hours in record shops, agonising over which LP (yes I’m that old!) to buy: now, with iTunes, it’s all done at the click of a button. Not the same at all. N.x

  5. Oh my! You have reminded me of Saturday afternoons in Vallances in Otley where we would stand in the booths and listen to latest singles being played so we could decide whether to buy or not (probably not because we couldn’t afford it!) then we would go to the local coffee bar and spend 2 hours over one orange juice and listen to the juke box!! Happy days – I think?! LOL:)
    x

    • Yep, many’s the hour I wasted in Square Records in Wimborne Minster (Dorset) trying to decide whether to buy the 7″ or 12″ single (albums were usually out of my price range!) Kids these days wouldn’t have any idea what we’re talking about, would they? Their loss! πŸ™‚ N.x

  6. Ah, like you Nick, I trust that the book as we know it is not going to be consigned to the memory of those of us who grew up loving them.

    And yet my son (who is an avid reader) reads his books on his Kindle and his newspaper on his iPad! And his wife rejoices in the consequent lack of clutter in their house!

    I do believe, like Thomas, that we may be moving towards an era whereby books become things of beauty printed in smaller numbers. I did have a friend who played with the idea of publishing small runs of hand-made books – to be treasured as much for their beauty as their content. I suspect he was a little ahead of his time. but perhaps it is the way to go.

    NB Retiremant is a bit like playing truant all the time πŸ™‚

    David

    • If I’m honest, so is freelancing! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

      I daresay I’ll end up with an e-reader one day, but until it becomes a legal requirement or medical necessity, I shall resist. And if your friend ever gets his publishing business off the ground, I’ll be first in the queue. N.

  7. A joy to read. The last line made me laugh out loud! I just got a Kindle for Christmas, and while I admit I was apprehensive about getting one due to the fact that I love the feel of a physical book in my hands (not to mention all the marking and note-taking in the margins I do), I have quickly come to enjoy the benefits of this technology. I think the single biggest advantage is in traveling. Being able to take one e-reader rather than two or three bulky books sure lightens your load.

    • Hey Eric – I’m delighted to have made you laugh; always a good sign! I guess I’ll come round to the whole e-reader thing in due course, but I’m what the marketing people are pleased to call a ‘laggard’ when it comes to new gadgets! N.

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