Monday, April 25, 2011

Something To Remind You: Books

It was St. George's Day on Saturday. Sant Jordi's day. It was also the day of the book and of the curious ritual of exchanging a rose for a book. What happens nowadays? Do Interflora and Amazon both deliver?

The personal may be being taken out of many aspects of life, the Kindle and the iPad may be assuming greater significance, but the book itself endures. Rather like vinyl, the book is more substantial, more tangible than a disc or the physically non-existent, the download. It is more personal.

In Palma, they celebrated book day. Politicians took the opportunity to celebrate some time as last men and women standing. Before they succumb to their probable fate in May, the regional president and the mayor of Palma were among the visitors. Antich was talking a good book, or was he a talking book? The next legislature will introduce initiatives to develop reading, so he said. The education minister was on hand to echo this and to insist that it was necessary to give strength to plans for reading development. What have they been doing for the past four years?

Reading, sales of books, financial assistance for parental purchase of books; these all crop up among the statistics that are regularly trotted out in the press. More than literature, Mallorca has been creating a generation that can read figures rather than prose. The attention that is paid to reading does, though, emphasise the role of the book in local society.

But this same society has been bemoaning standards. Last September, at the literary gathering in Formentor of book publishers, concern was expressed at the fact that children no longer had the "experience of the book". Public education is sub-standard enough for it to have been admitted that, while children read, if not as much as they might, they don't understand. Levels of comprehension in Mallorca and the Balearics, along with other core benchmarks in education, are below those of the Spanish average and well below those of Europe as a whole.

Despite a tradition of the book and literature, Mallorca has produced little by way of great works. Not on an international scale, at any rate. Yet, the island can lay claim to being the birthplace of the European novel. Ramon Llull's "Blanquerna", written in the thirteenth century, is often held up as the first of its kind. It was written in Catalan, emphasising the importance of the language in civilising mediaeval European society, something that is conveniently overlooked by many.

There was a mere gap of some 700 years before something approximating to a great work about Mallorca came along, Llorenç Villalonga's "Bearn" about the fall of the Mallorcan nobility. But for most people outside Mallorca, both it and Llull's work are obscure and generally ignored. A more recent Mallorcan literary tradition hasn't been one at all, but a foreign invasion of Peter Mayle-apeing pap.

For the visitor, Mallorca and books mean not the unknowns such as Villalonga, but what gets thrown into the suitcase. Holidays are reading time; for many, the only time they read a book. New technologies may spawn greater interest in reading, but the Kindle is still subject to the same drawbacks as the book on holiday: Ambre Solaire thumbmarks and grains of sand working themselves into the crevices.

The book on holiday can take on greater significance than merely a means of whiling away some hours on a beach or by the poolside. It is a remembrance, something to remind you. I know exactly where I was when I read William Trevor's gut-wrenchingly sad "The Story of Lucy Gault" or when I laughed hysterically at the insanely irreverent "Henry Root Letters".

Both are somewhere, among all the other books, the old copies of "Wisden", the Ian McEwan first editions, the translation of the bible for the Inquisition, the "Malleus Maleficarum". These are my own descendants of what I grew up among - Hemingway, Dickens and the less cerebral Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins.

The day of the book is a fine idea. There should be more of them. If only as a reminder of the greater aesthetic of the book. It can be read, but it can also be seen as a single object and even smelt. The new technologies don't offer the same pleasure and appeal to the senses.

In years to come, will the day of the book become the day of the electronic book? Stalls of handheld devices? Will the exchange of gifts mean a rose for a Kindle? I very much doubt it.

Any comments to please.

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