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Books: A Living History. Martyn Lyons. Thames & Hudson. [pounds sterling]19.95. 224 pages. ISBN 978-0-500-25165-2.

I was still test-driving my new Kindle when this sumptuous book arrived. Initially it felt like an admonitory bit of synchronicity. My relationship with the Kindle was already far-advanced. It--neither 'she' nor 'he' as Kindles are surely gender-less--had already allowed me the luxury of travelling light whilst being accompanied by more than enough holiday reading for a fortnight; its massive memory bulged not only with recent, must-read books but also with lots of free downloads of great works which I might have read, should have read or have pretended to have read. My affair with the Kindle seemed to have been made in heaven; I was smitten. In the midst of my infatuation, Martyn Lyons's book felt like a reproach; was I about to throw away a lifetime's love of tangible books for a giddy dalliance with a new, albeit attractive, kid on the block?

Martyn Lyons is fortunately not in the business of reproach. His beautifully illustrated work is, rather, an accessible, lightly-written account of the evolution of the many forms of what we now regard as 'the book'. His intention here does not include the proud presentation of new research findings in the flourishing academic field of 'the history of the book', a field in which he is a major scholarly figure, although his diligence is apparent in an admirably up-to-date and useful bibliography. Instead he gives his readers a well-balanced account of two major thematic histories which he melds throughout the volume. On the one hand he gives us a thoughtful, episodic reflection on the physical development of books from Sumerian baked clay tablets to the iPad. On the other hand he provokes us to think about the significance of literacy, something that many in the West simply assume, from the first and varied attempts to capture speech to the more recent world-wide phenomenon of the mass readership of print and electronic media. Mr Lyons' subtlety is discreetly apparent in his constant use of comprehensible examples. He writes about these histories by constant reference to the significance of books rather than the more abstract notion of 'the book'. Accordingly he writes about and illustrates the evolution of the great sacred texts of those faiths usually referred to as 'world religions' but also takes us through some of the towering but more worldly works such as The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, Diderot's Encyclopedie and The Pilgrim's Progress. There is no trace of Leavisite pickiness in his choice of examples as he also invites us to think about and then enjoy some splendidly uncanonical works like chapbooks, the Russian lubki and modern Japanese manga.

Martyn Lyons's light touch and his great gift of self-control when it comes to detail make his more obviously technical sections on, for example, the history of paper-making, the printing-press, type-faces, print and the law or the enterprise of publishing, surprisingly readable. Despite his own scholarly specialism in nineteenth-century France, he is also a commendable guide in ensuring that there is nothing Eurocentric about his account. Extra-European examples, drawn from the Far East, South Asia and Meso-America, are intriguing and contribute to what is now, after all, a globalized if not quite a global history. All readers will have personal moans about the things which he might have made more of. The role of print in soidisants revolutions struck me as worth more attention not least because of the sheer shelf-mileage of the works of Stalin, Mao Tse Dong, Kim Il Sung and Gaddafi. Likewise given the fascination of Grafton's work on forgery, it would have been helpful to have read more about veracity and duplicity in print; for example it is an appalling fact that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion remains a best-seller.

As I wallowed in this beautiful book, my infatuation with my cute little Kindle began to cool. Unlike the books Mr Lyons celebrates, Kindle denies me pagination, attractive fonts, maps, illustrations and gives me text on a resolutely dull background. As he implicitly reminds us, ebooks are not about to supplant 'the book'; they are simply another development in the history of the written--and read--word over millennia. I will always love real books and my dalliance with the Kindle remains no more than a holiday romance.
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Title Annotation:Books: A Living History
Author:Rathbone, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2012

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