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There is a book…

March 2, 2011

One of the best movies ever made is ‘Prospero’s books’ by Peter Greenaway (1991). It is based on Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ (1611) which you need to read first to understand the movie.

In addition to the classical plot and the beauty of the movie, a real master piece, the film is here and there interrupted by John Gielgud’s voice ‘There is a book…..’ followed by an animated ode to a beloved book with different themes such as anatomy or birds. You almost feel like crying.

I wonder if future people will read books like we used to? Will there be book collectors, bookstores and librarians, or will books be curiosities in museums, while every citizen on earth carries one electronical book, containing all of humanity’s publications, upgraded each week? Indeed such an universal book would promote knowledge and allow everyone access, but what about the love for the book as an object? Will book shelves be peculiar furniture of a past world? Will a beautiful private library, the symbol of a gentleman, serve no function? Even before I left the university in 2009, librarians at Uppsala University in Sweden noticed a dramatic decline in visitors, since students and researchers could do a majority of their studies from their offices, on-line. The reading halls became empty. Will future politicians and university economists deem libraries as unnecessary costs to preserve a nostalgic past? Will the books be stacked in a store room, where they slowly degrade, guarded by a single indifferent janitor? Update 2013: Numerous visitors to Dokmai Garden report that some American college libraries get rid of their physical books.

A rare book worth a fortune today will be nothing to tomorrow’s generations. It is sad that future people may not know the feeling of opening a book used by researchers for over 500 years, linking the generations.

In a tropical country like Thailand the old books made of palm leaves (Corypha umbraculifera, Arecaceae) or paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera, Moraceae) have in many cases disappeared due to hungry insects and fire. Electronical versions preserve the cultural heritage, but if the printed books disappear, then what a terrible disaster if a catastrophe hits mankind so our civilization is shattered and our servers destroyed. Humanity’s 2500 years of experience, survival skills, research, art and history – gone!

The Chiang Mai Mail, an English-speaking newspaper for which I have written 56 garden columns, is no longer available in its paper version. Although I like turning pages at a coffee table or in the bath tub, I see the benefits of electronical versions. You can read and compare several newspapers easily, save money, save time, save an interesting article without using scissors, and in today’s overpopulated world we save amazing amounts of paper and trees, which is very good. I guess the future electronical book will be water proof, allowing bath-tub reading.

Panta rei, a changing world is not necessarily bad.

Eric Danell, author of ‘Fruits and vegetables…

An old Thai book with wooden covers and pages made of boiled leaves from the talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera). The text was engraved with a stylus and then coloured. The Seehamongkol private collection, Dokmai Garden, Chiang Mai.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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