Alberto Manguel, in the chapter entitled “A Brief History of the Page” in his A Reader on Reading (Yale University Press), takes the story of this literary unit from the Sumerian stone tablet, through the scroll, to the codex (or book, as we know it, or have known it until recently).
“The first shape of the page was dictated by the measurements of the human hand,” Manguel writes. A rather good idea: there is comfort in a book the size of your hand. In medieval times books were stationary, and perhaps to some degree so also was knowledge. The book was a large and heavy thing and it stayed in the abbey or cathedral library; no need to make it portable. Who would want to read it? Who indeed outside the library would be able to read it? The Venetian printer/publisher Aldus Manutius made beautiful small books around the turn of the sixteenth century, for suddenly there was a hugely expanding market for them, and so, in different but analogous circumstances, did Allen Lane with his Penguin Press in the mid-twentieth century. In the 1980s book designers, it seems, were unleashed from the tyranny of utility. Book covers became (even) more striking, books could be any size you wanted them to be, but you could no longer really put them in your pocket without damaging them – or at all. Everyone was talking about One Hundred Years of Solitude, just a bit too big to take with you, but had everyone read it? I hadn’t (not to the end), though I sold a good few. Was this the time when possession and display of a book, a particular book at a particular time, became a fashion statement? Surely not. It must have happened before in previous eras.
The Manguel volume is a fine artefact. It not only looks well but feels good in your hands: you can bend it pleasingly without fear of doing damage. But I own no garment with a pocket large enough that I could put it into. The aesthetics of touch, which is important with books, is, I recently learned, called haptics. (Hapticity, on the other hand, is the coordination of a ligand to a metal centre via an uninterrupted series [or contiguity] of atoms ‑ but let it pass.)
Pages, historically, have had footnotes, and books have had an index referring back, often erroneously, to where such and such a topic (“Google: Jeanneny on … search fields of …problems, limitations of …”) is treated in the anterior. But pages may be disappearing. When one edits online one becomes aware of the uselessness (or relative uselessness – one can with some difficulty retrace one’s steps) of the writer’s urgent late corrections: “It’s on page seven, fourth paragraph …”. Oh no it’s not. Not when it’s gone over to the other side where there are no pages.
There are many distressing things that can happen to the electronic information we depend on, as I think we all know. “Back up, back up, back up” is the sound and indispensable advice today, as in my youth it was “Do the nine Fridays.”
I have always had great difficulty in understanding the mentality of that apparently numerous group of people whose great delight it is to plant a virus in your computer and make your life utter misery (Why? Because we can, I suppose.) However I have to admit that this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Back most of a lifetime ago such appalling, beastly people tore the final pages out of library books.
Anthony Aloysius Hancock, in Galton and Simpson’s 1960 episode of the classic Hancock’s Half Hour “The Missing Page” became deeply engrossed in Darcy Sarto’s thriller Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, a page-turner if ever there was one, borrowed from the local library in East Cheam. Hancock is extremely disconcerted, having been quite taken over by the novel, to find that the last page, in which the identity of the murderer is just about to be revealed by detective Johnny Oxford, has been torn out by a previous borrower, leaving the text to run on straight to the advertisements, which fifty years ago were common on the endpapers of popular novels:
So you see inspector the only person could have done these murders is the man sitting over there. So saying, Johnny Oxford pointed his finger at ‑ Men are you skinny? Do you have sand kicked in your face?
In my long personal history of reading and not reading books, I have always found that wanting to know what happens in the end is a strong motivation; and also that if a complex or intriguing narrative is not recounted in an utterly incompetent way (and I mean utterly) I can manage to stick with it. Hence the twenty or so fairly dismal Agatha Christies I have read. And remind me, those chaps Emma Bovary asked for money to dig her out near the end of the book, they did help her? I can’t quite remember.