On January's bookshelf

Overseas-education | Brighten Youth Edu Centre 12 Jan 2021

Books are transgressive items. They're seductive, inflammatory, powerful and eternal. We carry them with us from our youngest years. They accompany us to bed. They are tokens of love. They are pieces of technology. They break down. They decorate our homes. They shape our history. In some cultures and contexts, certain books are almost living entities.

This month's bookshelf recommendation is a meditation on the book as a physical object and its place in our world.

In The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words (2019), University of Edinburgh professor Tom Mole considers how books and readers evolve over time.

Mole's writing examines the life of the book beyond the words on the page, from book burnings to the books that shaped nations. It ruminates on what it means to handle and possess a book, dwelling on what we do to books and what books do to us.

Through charming prose, Mole develops his arguments in part with personal stories, from the professor driven out of his own office by books to the author's predilection for a bookcase (any bookcase, anywhere), to the soothing power of libraries (and why students are drawn to work amongst the shelves).

He posits that a reader'sbooks - at least, the onestheychoose to hold on to and put on their shelves where guests may view them - tell us exactly whotheythinktheyare. In the past, this meant imbedding the image of books amongst elaborate paintings, leaving messages for the viewer to decode.

As Mole writes: ''Books are part of how we understand ourselves. They shape our identities, even before we can read them. They accompany us throughout our livesThey get tangled up in our relationships with parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, friends, lovers and children. They are part of how groups of people, and even nations, imagine and represent themselves."

The placement of national libraries around the world does much to illustrate this final claim, as would further discussion of Mole's exploration of how books appear in public and how they are used in private.

Beyond being an instant hit with any bibliophile, Mole's work is studded with fascinating insights into the history of the book.

What, for example, was the 19th-century book lover supposed to do? Books were still shatteringly expensive, and libraries as public institutions unthinkable beyond a few urban centers.

The answer was to form the world's first book clubs, where readers came together to share any books in their possession.

The Secret Life of Books is a deeply soothing work - something we could all enjoy at the moment.

However, it still asks pertinent questions about what happens when books, and the spaces where they are revered, are compromised.

Events which impact upon books impact upon the world.

If you have any questions about our column, or the issues raised within it, please e-mail them to us: enquiry@brightentestprep.edu.hk

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