Today, in mourning, in need of a transitionary book, not quite ready for a novel, I have turned to Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing: a year of reading from home. I am not quite sure what it is yet, other than a love story to the book. “Huge, heavy, illustrated one. Small, neat, square hardbacks and pocket-sized paperbacks. Reasons with drawings, with photographs, with colour. Shiny ones. Matt ones. Cheap ones, expensive ones. Chunky ones.” You get the picture: the author is not a fan of the small, flat grey screen that she refers to by its full name: the Electronic Reader.
And reading her love story has reminded me of hearing Douglas Copeland speaking to Alan Yentob about something I have suspected but lacked the information to articulate: reading from the screen is not the same as reading from the page. It uses a different part of the brain. When we are reading from a screen we become part of the machinery. The brain has a quality called plasticity that means it ever so subtly, ever so cleverly, rewires itself, forges connections to make it so.
Marshall McLuhun got it back in the 1950s when television was his chief concern. “By electricity we have not been driven out of our senses so much as our senses have been driven out of us. Today man’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment.”
When we read from the page it is not a passive act. Why would we want it to be? Not when it represents a year of the author’s life. Yes, it is very easy to discover facts on the internet, but what Susan Hill reminds us of is the joy of receiving a book for Christmas in the post war years, when they were printed on almost transparent paper; of opening a second-hand book to discover the inscription, ‘To Patrick, remembering our days at the seminary’ and wonder, or the turn to page 146 of Vanity Fair and find ‘F..k Off’ sprawled in red ink; to open a long-forgotten book and have a love letter fall from its leaves; to breathe in the perfume of a previous reader; to rediscover notes our more childish selves made in childish handwriting; to loose yourself in a cookery book on a rainy afternoon.
In Susan Hill’s house, the books feel as organic a part of it as the beams, the Aga in the kitchen, the wood burner in the sitting room. ‘It is true that if I had no books but only a small, grey hand-held electronic device, I would only need a very small house, and how tidy that would be…’