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Why Books still Matter: Part I
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Why Books still Matter: Part I

by Nazir HarithJune 30, 2017

Recently I went to the UK for a bit of travelling. I decided on UK (instead of other destinations) for a different kind of traveling.

Nowadays you can see a spectrum of travelling packages that cater to various kinds of interest. From purely physical and adventurous ones to just going around and shopping. It’s a highly personalised world. People have their own reasons to embark on a journey hundreds of kilometers away to experience something that (they think) can’t be found in their hometown.

Apart from some personal matters, I went to the UK for one particular reason – books. Europe has a long history on the printing industry, stretching from the earliest revolutionary method of making books abundant and easy via the Gutenberg press. So I devised myself a traveling schedule centered around books and any related stuff.

For almost three weeks I covered as many bookshops as possible, with a special consideration towards secondhand and independent bookshops. I believe that in a locality there are two main important institutions that play a huge role in cultivating a vibrant culture among its community. They are the library and the bookshops. One is a mostly government funded institution – though you may be able to find a privately funded library – while the other is generally a private entity endeavour. These two institutions are complementary. Even though we live in a highly connected world via the internet but the distillation of knowledge and good accessible reading materials still centers around these two entities.

My first stop was Bernard Quaritch Ltd, an antiquarian bookseller that has been in business since 1847. There I met up with Joanna Skeels who was kind enough to show me around the establishment and help me out in finding books for . When I arrived all the staff were excited because Southeby was holding a book auction. They have a huge range of books from literature, philosophy, history to manuscripts. Some of them can fetch up to thousands of pounds. It all depends on what book you’re looking at. Joanna explains that a book transcends being just a book when it has the slightest importance in history. Some of the books become an art object of marvel and significant importance. “It’s kind of fun when you know the story behind a particular book. Some may belong to a famous and important person. And some may hold a groundbreaking shift in the history of human thought.”

Joanna brought me upstairs to meet with other staff. There, in front of a computer, a tall bald man rose up to greet me. “Sorry for not realising you came in. It’s a big day for us today. We are hoping to secure a couple of lot. Have Joanna told you about the auction?” I simply smiled and nodded. Suddenly another man came in. He’s of a bulky physique, wearing a wool blazer carrying a sling bag. We shook hands and I introduced myself. “It’s a big day!” the man who introduces himself as Andrea exclaims. The environment was merry. The staff really loved their job.

“What people don’t realize is we are humans and are intrinsically attached to physical material. The physical book has made a comeback in recent years; people are slowly coming around to embrace the very act of buying and reading the real stuff again.” Jonathan tells me. “In terms of practicality and ease to bring around, the ebook has done a wonderful job. But sometimes it is not a matter of practicality that makes us a human.  There is this other dimension of physical tactile experience that can’t be translated digitally.”

After Bernard Quaritch I visited the British Library to meet up with Dr Annabel Gallop, the lead curator for Southeast Asian materials. She works mostly on Malay and Indonesian manuscripts. I was with my friend Lutfi when she came down to greet us with a warm smile at the information counter overlooking a glass temperature controlled room, where stacks of leather bound books are arranged majestically upwards to the heavens. “There are a lot of materials in Southeast Asia, mainly Malay manuscripts, that hasn’t been studied.” According to Dr Annabel, most of the Malay manuscripts are still being kept in Malaysia. The library holds over 300 documents of Malay manuscripts ranging from the fields of literature, history and law. All of them can be accessed here in their digital collection.

The Quran is the most highly ornate text in Islamic civilisations throughout the world and history. Being the word of God has a central position in Islamic civilisation. Each Islamic civilisations has had their own unique illuminated imprint. For the Nusantara you can see a more earthy colour shades used and vegetal illuminations was indigenous to its area. According to Dr Annabel, the more vibrant and crazy the colour and illuminated forms are of the ones that adorn texts praising the prophet Muhammad.

Printing was introduced in the Malay Archipelago around the 17th century, where the earliest examples of print was naturally a compilation of Malay words. It was in the early 19th century that we can see huge printing materials produced, chiefly by the arrival of British missionaries. The British Library holds a substantial collection of Malay printed works. It was the rule of the imperial British government back in the day where for each book published in Malaya, a copy of it must be handed to the British Library for their collection.

“There’s a lot more work that can be done.” said Dr Annabel. Physical text materials still holds a special kind of experience; a kind of relationship with man. From the marvels of beautifully decorated manuscripts to the beauty of a well made book, the vehicle of the text never ceases to call us back to it.

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Nazir Harith

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