Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The blank symbol

'"It may be that a writer's attitude to books is always ambivalent, for one of the reasons one writes is that all existing books are somehow unsatisfactory, but it's certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilisation.  Of course the symbol changes: the fine book, its materials, its craftsmanship, its design, was eloquent of  a civilisation founded on means,  leisure and taste;  today the symbol is the paperback, hurled in hundreds of thousands against the undeveloped areas (Asia, Africa, the young), spreading what we think is best in our thought and imagination.  If our values are to maintain a place in the world, these are the troops that will win it for them, but victory is not a foregone conclusion.  And what is won abroad may all too easily be lost at home.  Perhaps George Orwell best used the book-as-symbol in a way satisfactory to both sides: you remember how in 1984 he made his hero, Winston Smith, treasure a book that he had acquired from 'a frowsy little junk shop';  it was, Orwell tells us, 'a peculiarly beautiful book' in paper and binding alike.  Only, the pages were blank.  For a writer, the image is a powerful one: the books the past has given us, the books in which the bookseller deals, are printed; they are magnificent, but they are finite.  Only the blank book, the manuscript book, may be the book we shall give the future.  Its potentialities are endless."

'Books'  Foreword to the Antiquarian Book Fair programme, 1972
Required Writing   Miscellaneous pieces 1955-1982   Philip Larkin

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