Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The One Thing I Actually Did in Leipzig

I seem to know a lot of lovely translators who maintain blogs nowadays. Another friend, Jamie Lee Searle, writes at And she brightened up my short stay in Leipzig and has written much more about it than I managed, which you ought to read.

Anyway, her post has prompted me to say a little something after all about one of the events we attended together, a discussion on the future of the book. Yes, I am a sucker for punishment. I'd been drawing a tactful veil of silence over it to be honest. But now I think, why not just let it all out in one big therapeutic rant. Jamie's given it the polite treatment, so now I can vent.

First of all, the format. An hour and a half! With seven people on the panel! And one of them was a famous American who attracted an adoring audience, which meant they had to cart along extra chairs and there were still people standing at the back. And then despite the event having a rather cute title - The Perfect Reading Machine - all that happened was that two people defended print books to the hilt, two people defended ebooks with a little less enthusiasm, and two people sat on the fence. What made me want to vomit the most was the way the reactionaries got peals of applause every time they mentioned workmanship, binding methods or typefaces. What made me want to vomit second-most was that almost everyone on the panel assumed that everybody who reads books is equipped with unlimited wealth and space for building up enormous libraries.

There was one golden moment, when poetry publishing empress Daniela Seel questioned the whole notion of reading for understanding - we'd been told that students reading on computers were distracted and therefore comprehended less - by asking: What is understanding in the first place? But nobody picked up her thread to crochet a more imaginative future for readers. And nor did the genuine argument that seemed to be brewing between Seel and the reactionaries ever break out into full-blown mud wrestling. Jamie and I started shuffling in our seats after an hour or so and I encouraged her to join me in walking out extra specially loudly in our clacky analogue high heeled boots. I felt like Nancy Sinatra. It was good.

Of course, having mouthed off loudly outside about paper fetishists, I did blow a hole in my budget the next day on a 1966 edition of Ernst Jandl poems on deckle-edged handmade paper. I shall add it to my infinite library as a reminder not to go to any more discussions on the future of the book, unless they involve real mud.

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