Blog: Mind over Matter? The Physical Presence of Literature, by Joanna Neilly

 

goethe-schiller 2aOn 22 March 1832, Germany’s ‘poet prince’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died, aged 82. By 4 April, he was already being moved into the realm of myth, as a report in the newspaper Die Allgemeine Zeitung declared that news of Goethe’s death was met across the German lands –and beyond – with the same outpouring of grief and lament that followed the death of the god Pan in Greek mythology. Goethe occupied the status of national poet decades before the German nation came into being. His presence in Weimar placed the city at the centre of German literary production, giving Germans a literary capital and encouraging the existence of a cultural collective despite the lack of a nation state. His death, then, led to a crisis about the future of German literature, particularly as Germany’s other great hope, Friedrich Schiller, had been cut down in his prime 27 years previously, aged only 45.

The erection of a bronze Goethe-Schiller monument in Weimar in 1857 reunited the poets in the form of a double statue and returned them to their proper place at the centre of German literary life. Prior to the final unveiling of the statue, there had been much controversy over its physical appearance – should the pair appear in Greek robes, as classical heroes? Or should they wear contemporary middle-class dress, reflecting their appeal to modern Germans? The decision in favour of the latter option was not free of nationalist considerations: Germany’s cultural heritage, for liberal nationalists, was to inform its political future. The mythical status of these specifically German greats was converted to a physical act of memorialisation that could serve collective dreams.

This particular type of ‘embodiment’ of the author in lasting physical form was one of the themes discussed at the inaugural ‘Authors and the World’ event, ‘Embodying Literary Celebrity in Multiple Media’. The death of Goethe’s Scottish contemporary, Walter Scott, also in 1832, was followed by the erection of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh. Tom Mole argued that, alongside the Byron Monument in Hyde Park Corner in London, this monument formed part of a British ‘pantheon’, spread across the nation. The value of ‘sculptured pantheons’ for nation building, Tom suggested, was down to their ‘non-discursive’ nature. We can adapt the meaning of the statues, in other words, to suit a particular interest. In these cases, that interest is the creation of a collective memory in the service of the future of the nation. Furthermore, as Tom pointed out, statues have an appeal that crosses borders of class and education, a quality vitally important for the development of an inclusive, rather than elitist, national literature (for a fuller report on Tom’s paper, see here).

It would seem, then, in any case for nineteenth-century publics, that there was a great importance attached to physical reminders of the author’s greatness. After the author dies, particularly in a climate of national or political instability, the sense of a remaining tangible relationship is of significant comfort.

Two centuries on, the celebrities we choose to memorialise in this fashion may be somewhat different, but questions about the need for a tangible relationship between literature and its readers have returned, provoked by growing concerns about the future of the book market in an increasingly digitalised world. This was the theme of a debate held in Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford on Thursday 16 October. The central question of the evening, ‘Will Bookshops exist in 100 Years’ Time?’, brought together a range of speakers including authors, publishers, and booksellers, to discuss the current state of the book industry, to consider the importance of the physical book and, ultimately, to predict the future of bookshops. As I waited for the debate to begin, I was reminded of the discussions we had in Lancaster about the embodiment of literature, and I began to think about how this concept relates to contemporary responses, not to the person of the author, but to the book as a physical object. The rise of the e-book and electronic readers has led to many a heated debate among bookworms, and I had always considered myself firmly pro-paper until a colleague recently declared that while many people were interested in the body of a book, he was interested only in its soul. This lofty ideal rather unsettled my own convictions: what is it, after all, that we seek in a book, if not its story?

One answer came from a commentator in Blackwell’s: the sensory experience. It was even suggested, maybe only half in jest, that, were a manufacturer able to invent a reader that reproduced the smell of old books, even the die-hards would convert. So, nostalgia plays a role, as we see when classics such as Anne of Green Gables are re-issued in centenary editions, or when merchandise such as mugs and postcards are emblazoned with images of classic book covers. As it turns out, the book as a collector’s object continues to do well: hardback sales are actually rising as a result of developments in the trade. It seems that this trend, in part at least, results from a desire to acquire quality items for the bookcase at home: having tried out the books in electronic form, readers then purchase hardback editions. A less generous interpretation suggested that people buy highly-regarded works in order to show off, and keep the ‘trashy literature’ in e-form for their eyes only – so that their ‘good taste’ is embodied in a highly selective representation of their reading.

On the whole, the panel, which included authors Jen Campbell, Mark Forsyth, and Andy Miller, agreed that the printed book is not, in fact, in serious danger. The bookshop itself, however, is less safe, and may yet be threatened out of existence by online giant Amazon. Jen Campbell’s view that ‘bookshops are magical places’ is one with which many of us may agree, but is this really enough to secure their future? Mark Forsyth provided a more compelling reason to keep books on the high street. Browsing in a bookshop, he claimed, allows us to find new and unexpected interests – in his words, ‘beautiful serendipities’ – by way of the chance encounter or discovery we would never make online. The internet allegedly opens our horizons with infinite information, but, as the panellists convincingly argued, this is a chimera, for the internet feeds back to us exactly what we already know. Tailored ‘recommended reading’ based on past purchases is a case in point: a move that narrows our world rather than broadening it. Instead of giving us back ‘whatever we want’, bookshops present us with unexpected joys. For this reason, the physical bookshop is essential in the continued development of our intellectual curiosity. The ‘disembodiment’ of literature in the virtual world, on the other hand, could bring unexpected limitations. And if the bookshop disappears, there will be no lasting monument.

By Joanna Neilly, Lecturer in German at The Queen’s College, Oxford

 

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