Black Lines and White Spaces

On one of our train journeys to Hampton, we talk about our first memories of reading.  Neither of us can remember the first time that letters gathered themselves into something we understood as words, but Becky can remember an early memory of forming cursive letters at school. The page specially ruled with staves of three black lines and with big white gaps in between. The mysterious difference between the shape of the letter being right or wrong.

In The History of Reading, Alberto Manguel recalls the first time he read a word on a billboard whilst riding in the back of his parents’ car as the moment that letters, “metamorphosed from black lines and white spaces into a solid, sonorous, meaningful reality…” Reading as a first rite of passage.

The history of reading is intimately intertwined with the power of the written word and its relationship to freedom and oppression – from slave owners preventing their slaves from learning to read, to censorship attempts via the burning of books. Although the most famous instance of book burning is probably that of the 10th May 1933 in Berlin, (when the then propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels oversaw the burning of more than 20,000 books for the Third Reich),  books have been burnt as long ago as 411 BC, (the works of Protagoras in Rome) and as recently as last year.

In 1991 I had a Saturday job in an independent bookshop and although this was three years after instances of the burning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and although the bookshop manager argued vociferously with the owner of the company for freedom of speech, we were not allowed to display a copy of Rushdie’s book in the shop window or anywhere else visibly  prominent in the shop. However there was a copy covertly available and all four of us staff  knew where it was should there be a request for it!

As a teenager, novelist Ray Bradbury heard about the Nazi book burnings and deeply affected by this news, he later wrote Farenheit 451 – a novel about a dystopic future society in which books are burned. In an interview from 2005 he said:

“When I was fifteen, he [Hitler] burnt the books in the streets of Berlin. Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I’m self-educated, that means my educators — the libraries — are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed.

Farenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper burns.…

The German writer Goethe described a book burning that he witnessed as being like an execution: “To see an inanimate object being punished is in and of itself something truly terrible.”

Books have a special place in the realm of objects. Is this because of the particularly tactile relationship we have with them? We spend many hours holding them in our hands, carrying them with us, turning their pages…. We devour them, savour them, regret finishing them; in all manner of places and in all kinds of postures.