SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts

Hail to the humble book – what is its fate in today’s digitized world?

This week is national book week in the Netherlands. Did you buy a book, read a book or perhaps you gave some books away? A recent move meant that I found myself sorting through my collection of books and paying a visit to my nearest mini bieb to make a donation.

There is something immensely satisfying about adding to a growing collection of books – neatly tucked away behind a sturdy pane of glass. Mini biebs are small street libraries set up on the outside walls of private homes. They facilitate the free exchange of paper books, a growing trend in an era when their electronic counter-parts are becoming ever more popular.

So how will the humble book, our faithful companion for so many centuries now, fare in the digitized world of the 21st century? Is it on its way out or will there always a be a place for the glossy covers and crisp printed pages of an honest to goodness paper book? From the wood-bound codices of Ancient Rome to the ornate manuscripts of the Medieval monasteries and the first printed offerings of Guttenburg’s press, books have been treasured, banned and burnt for the learning that lies within their covers.

Book banning is apparently on the rise again in the United States but this is certainly not the only country in the world where they are censored. People have died and been made martyrs for books. Yet in the Caliphates of Moorish Spain, special rights were enjoyed by what were known as ‘people of the book’ – these were Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Bible, Torah and the Koran guaranteed a legitimacy that other bookless religions simply could not claim.

Yet today, it is not uncommon to read of the crisis in which books and traditional reading find themselves. A quick internet survey suggests that adults across many developed countries are reading less, certainly less literature. Ebooks and interactive digital books are on the rise however. Libraries still house books but they too are embracing other multimedia forms of knowledge sharing.

“I’ve always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” wrote Argentinian literary giant, Jose Luis Borges. But what kind of library? The days of towering book-lined walls filled with dust-covered volumes of ancient lore, Hogwarts-style, have sadly passed. Many modern libraries still soothe with their gentle silence and softly-spoken librarians, yet many also house cafés, rows of computers and even small shops.  

Perhaps it is the large number of what I think of as homeless books that suggests they are less valued, less cherished than in past times. “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes” said Desiderius Erasmus. But in many wealthy countries of the 21st century, books are frequently viewed as cumbersome relics of the past. Monuments perhaps to deforestation and climate change.

Yet still I maintain there are few things as satisfying as pulling a slightly dog-eared copy of a favourite book out of a rucksack on a beach or a rainy bus stop and losing yourself in another world.     Souwie Buis   April 2022

Souwie Buis is a freelance journalist, podcaster and radio host. Born in South Africa she considers herself a citizen of the world. Art lover from a young age, her special passions are literature and performance arts, especially flamenco! She is always happy to hear from a fellow aficionado and to reach out via one of her social media handles if you have arts news or events to share. 

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