HISTORY TALKING: Living in an era when reading a book is a novel idea

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the philosopher and writer, suggested that the three things that changed the world were gun powder, the compass and the printing press.

Had he lived today, he may well have added a few more to his list, but it is probably true to say that the printing press was one of the most powerful inventions of the modern era.

QUESTION: "Will generations to come have the same delight and the anticipation of feeling and smelling and reading a brand new book or of carefully turning the pages of a very old one?" Photo: FILE PHOTO

QUESTION: "Will generations to come have the same delight and the anticipation of feeling and smelling and reading a brand new book or of carefully turning the pages of a very old one?" Photo: FILE PHOTO

According to my research the first printing of books began in China in the Tang Dynasty and the oldest printed book dates back to 868AD. Then came tablets, scrolls and sheets of papyrus and handmade expensive books called codices.

At the start of the 15th century every English text had to be laboriously copied by hand and when Joseph Guttenburg, a German goldsmith, invented the printing press, a whole new world opened up. 

The output of books grew enormously over the next few centuries, although they were generally aimed at royalty and the upper classes. Adult literacy was growing, however, and books began to be printed in the vernacular instead of Latin. 

Guttenburg's invention was able to spread knowledge and mold public opinion in a way that nothing before the advent of radio and television was able to do.

It is perhaps difficult for those who were born in the latter half of the 20th century and even later to imagine a world where the the only entertainments in the home were listening to the radio and reading. There were of course games, both indoor and outdoor, but if you just wanted to sit, a book was generally your favoured companion.

This month The Orange Oral History Group discussed the implications of this and thought about its own experiences with books and reading.

Our group consists of people who have worked in all manner of occupations and we value their input to our discussions. 

John Coxhill shared his knowledge of book publishing with us.

“I came out from the UK in 1969 and joined MacMillan's publishing company as NSW representative,” he said.

“Publishing at that time was dominated by family businesses. The sons of Sir Harold MacMillan, who had served as Prime Minister from 1957 until 1963, used to visit Australia every year.

“Another well known publisher was Sir William Collins, who also came out to see how things were going and to thank the staff. Sadly that personal touch has now disappeared.

It is perhaps hard to believe in today's society how very steeped in history these old firms were.

John had a friend who wanted to open a bookshop in Sydney and while in London visited the well respected firm of John Murray who had published Lord Byron, Jane Austen and Darwin's Origin of the Species, among others.

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, but he who never reads lives only one.

George R.R. Martin

“While talking to the publisher in his office he noticed a painting on the wall depicting Lord Byron standing beside the very desk where he himself was sitting,” said John.

“Sadly these families who had such a love and feel for books were not very successful with accountancy and were forced to sell out to bigger, more modern companies."

We found the group was divided in their own love of books. John Bowler was born into “a book-loving family.’

“At Christmas we all were given a book and I grew up enjoying the Just So stories and Ion Idriess books and early Australian history."

Kerrel's father fostered her love of books by reading to her as a small child and no matter where she lived she always quickly found a library.

Keith was a little boy in WWII when he attended a fundraising war effort in the village hall. He spied a little book with a red cover which he badly wanted to buy. 

“If you can read from it to me, you can have it for tuppence,” said the lady behind the stall. 

Keith's mother had been teaching him to read Australian poems and luckily this book opened at a page with Our Andy's Gone With Cattle which he was well able to handle.

John Coxhill was on a blind date and started the conversation with “I've just bought a book” and mentioned the title. The lady he was with replied that she had just read the very same book and they began a discussion which apparently went so well that they have now been married for some time.

Glenna, who had been a school librarian said she had been concerned that in the early 1990s some educators thought that several books which had been written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries  should be censored because of the politically-incorrect language.

She thought that reading them to the children for discussion would be a better option. Private lending libraries which charged a small amount for a book were very popular and several of our group borrowed from them. 

Others began their reading lives with comics like Tarzan of the Apes and the English boys magazines, Champion and Triumph

Stuart, having read The  Picture of Dorian Grey, worried that his misbehaviour might be reflected in his face. Two of our group told us they were dyslexic and Lynne was emphatic in her dislike of anything to do with reading.

This was surprising, as both have succeeded in their professions despite the difficulties they have had to face.

Will generations to come have the same delight and the anticipation of feeling and smelling and reading a brand new book or of carefully turning the pages of a very old one? We hope so.