From Petrarch’s book to Coleridge on the iPhone

There was a letter from the Italian scholar poet Petrarch that I once came across in Medieval Miscellany, an anthology of Medieval writers. I can’t for the life of me remember it now (I bought it as a present for my dad years ago) but it’s something to the effect that he was giving a book of his as a present to a friend and he listed the adventures he and the book had been through, including almost drowning in a river. This book, which had meant so much to Petrarch as an object, he was now passing on to his friend.

Apart from subscribers to the Folio Society, I wonder who would put the same value on a book they owned today? Not the increasing numbers I see on the metro reading ebooks. I’m not sure if I should include myself in this group, of ebook readers I mean – I gave up putting any value on books years ago, the price of being a librarian’s son, familiarity breeding contempt. But as I read Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism, recommended by Bennett on page 100, on my iPhone on the journey into work I wonder if I am a iPhone reader or just someone who is too stingy to buy a Kindle. I also wonder if I should be reading Wordsworth on my iPhone in the first place.

There is, I tell myself, no reason why I shouldn’t. Each year I see more and more people on the Madrid metro using ebook readers. In fact, I would say from my observations that there are more people using them in Madrid than Glasgow or Edinburgh. But of course there aren’t. Statistics, as someone famous should have said, are the mortal enemies of anecdotes. According to a report on the 10th of October in bookseller.com (Europe set to embrace the ebook) the market share of ebooks in the UK is 6% while in Spain it’s 1%. Which if my reading of National Population Projections 2008 Based from the Office of National Statistics is correct works out at 3,684,000 people in Britain with an ebook and, using the results from the 2001 census available from the Instituto Nacional Estadística, 408,473.71 ebook owners in Spain. So, whereas in Britain I could justify my reading of Wordsworth on my iPhone by saying I was part of an already well-established and growing group of consumers, here in Spain I am a literary pariah.

(The town of Baltar in Galicia, according to statistics from the 2001 census, saw its population drop from 4,018 inhabitants in 1981 to 1,233 in 2001. If the national pattern of ebook ownership was repeated in Baltar we’re talking about 12.33 ebook owners. Not so much a group of pariahs, more a coven of witches. A new census is being carried out in Spain this year so I’ll be keeping an eye on Baltar).

But I did read Wordsworth’s literary criticism and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on my iPhone, even though Bennett advises reading anything but short poems at this early stage in forming your literary taste. I had also ordered an anthology of contemporary verse from Salt Publishing. It wasn’t with any other intention than the vague feeling that I should know more about modern British poetry. But my reaction to its arrival in the mailbox showed that following Bennett’s advice had had an effect. I don’t know if it was Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “…the image of man and nature” or asking myself why the Ancient Mariner found himself at a wedding party (was that in the dream that inspired Coleridge to write the poem as well?) but I closed the book without reading more than a line, knowing that it would remain unread.

I don’t know if a reaction that powerful is a good thing. There must be good poetry being written in Britain. But clearly I’m not the person to read it or judge it. There is a price to be paid for developing a literary taste. So, keeping that in mind, I’m plotting E.M.Forster 3, Virginia Woolf 3. There’s movement in the graph but it’s hard to say if it’s in the right direction.

(The book didn’t go to waste. I may not value books as objects, like Petrarch, but my presbyterian soul demands that I recognise their value in how they are used. Books have to be read. I gave it to a friend at work who I knew would be much more opened-minded than me. In return she asked me what was my cut-off date for reading fiction and I told her 1950. The next day she gave me a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s, published in 1945.)

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