Hard copy books may be going extinct, but nothing will ever replace them.
If people know anything of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, it’s probably the aphorism with which the novel begins: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’.
A man in his mid-sixties comes across his diary account of the fifteen days he spent at a Norfolk country house a half-century before, an episode which influenced his whole life. The book is several things, including a tragic love story as seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy, and a meditation on memory and the power of evocation. It was published in 1953 and it was a tremendous success, being made into a 1971 film starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, which was my introduction to the novel.
My copy is a Penguin, published in 1981, with Julie Christie on the cover. For an old paperback it is pretty good condition, with the binding intact and the pages un-yellowed. It’s a second hand copy and I can’t remember where or when I got it but it was originally bought new at Tyrrell’s Book Shop – a famous name in the Sydney book trade, now extinct. Besides the bookseller’s stamp the book also had two previous owner’s names inscribed on it, male and female. Just in case they’re still out there, I’ll call them A and C.
Recently I re-read my copy and, after some tens of pages I realised that both A and C had read and annotated it cover to cover: from their comments it seemed that they were senior secondary school students. The two sets of handwriting are what used to be called ‘childish’ – A usually prints his comments in capitals, C typically writes hers in a loose cursive script. Sometimes important text is denoted by brackets in the margin, sometimes underlined in ink: A uses blue ink, and C pink.
So here was a text about a love affair between two young people, commented on by two slightly younger people. I was idly wondering if there was any connection between A and C, whether they actually knew each other, when I came to the passage where the narrator, as a young boy, destroys a belladonna plant to obtain ingredients for a magical potion. He tears up the plant with a violence that is, if not sexual, then at least very intense. C underlined the passage in pink, and at the end she added ‘I Love A’. And she surrounded the words with drawings of hearts.
I felt like a bit of a voyeur. But then I realised that this revelation of their relationship (if that’s what it amounted to … did C ever declare her love to A? did she pass the book on to him, or vice versa?) was a function of the actual book: not just the text, but the hard copy itself. My forty year old Penguin had become a palimpsest, as (the possibility of) another youthful love affair had superimposed itself on Hartley’s tale of doomed love. And, just as the Narrator’s old diary had triggered his memory of far-off times, so the hard copy of the book had become the vehicle of the memory of readers decades ago. From feeling like an intruder I went to feeling slightly humbled and privileged by my casual purchase of a worn paperback.
And this epiphany was sparked by the ability of a physical book to carry a meaning other than the text. It may be that, as some claim, TikTok or its successor will supplant the book, but C declared her love for A, not all that long ago, before the internet existed. As a result their particular moment remains a tiny piece of jetsam on the ocean of time – even if they are unaware of it.