In ‘loving memory’ has nothing to do with the confused discussion on the future of the book and everything with its past. The title of this blog simply refers to four decades of dealing with books in my capacities as a reader, curator, historian and bibliographer. Much has been made in recent years about the emergence of the ebook and the ‘death’ of the printed book. Such discussions are fashionable and fruitless. As long as people read, the shape or form of the book is irrelevant. In fact, the ebook may well be a blessing in disguise for those who passionately defend the printed book. Photography did not kill off portrait painting as it was once feared; neither will the ebook refer the printed text to the dustbin of history.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the shift from making paper out of cloth to cheap wood pulp unleashed an era of mass-market publishing. Driven by growing literacy within society, the result was a flood of flimsily produced and ugly looking books. Critics were convinced that Literature (with capital) was doomed to extinction. Instead, mass produced books gave rise to a number of small private presses which, inspired by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, flourished from the 1890s onwards. Morris set out to revive a tradition of richly illustrated and handmade books, a philosophy that was taken into the twentieth century by private presses such as the Nonesuch and the Golden Cockerel in Britain, and the Zilverdistel and Cranach Press on the Continent.
A parallel development is taking place at the moment. The application of new technologies in producing texts means fewer but better-produced printed books. The concept of the small high-quality press has returned and, with it, an interest in illustration and design. The illustrated book is re-conquering a place in the battle for public attention. The rise of the ebook has led to a renewed appreciation of the Book Beautiful, both amongst publishers and readers. There is nothing more to be said about the subject, because there is ample space for different forms of presentation. Literature truly is a Palace of Variety.