Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
Working from home has had an interesting effect on me. My first instinct was to get online; after all, the world wide web has everything, doesn't it? Except I quickly felt distant, my computer screen a blur of ever changing pixels, breaking news articles and pop ups. It was actually all too much. Going to work lets me drive through the countryside and towns, meet friends and colleagues - give the office dog a fuss! - and reminds me of the more immediate world beyond the laptop screen in front of me. Sitting at home just doesn't cut it. Then I remembered a parcel. The kind folks at the Folio Society had sent me a copy of their new publication of David McCullough's eminent history of the American War of Independence, 1776. I tore open the packaging (left to one side for later recycling!) and there it was, a lovingly produced and printed book which I could hold in my hands. Something tangible in a world where everything has become almost too digital.
The irony isn't lost on me that I'm typing this article up on my laptop, ready for publishing on The American's website (at which point, here's a shameless plug for our free weekly e-newsletter, do sign up to it!). In mitigation, the Coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented territory for many of us, digital is the easiest way to connect. But that time I spent with a book in my hand, reading about history and understanding more about the foundation of America, made me remember why books are so important to humankind as a whole. The book's epigraph says it all, a quote from George Washington - "Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages".
During these unusual times, books have the capacity to help us persevere, not just through their message, but by their physical state. What's on our phones and computers is subject to constant change, correction, and in some regards, replacement. Yesterday's story is so easily replaced by today's in modern society, this morning’s by this afternoon’s. But history should always stand as a lesson in itself, whether that's a story from yesterday or a story, like McCullough's, from over 200 years ago. What shapes us today shouldn't be replaced by what alters us tomorrow. Books, the printed word, preserve our sense of history during a time when so many things feel uncertain and unclear.
This was brought into sharp focus when a fictitious quote from the diary of Samuel Peyps recently emerged online. The quote went:
"On hearing ill rumour that Londoners may soon be urged into their lodgings by Her Majesty’s men, I looked upon the street to see a gaggle of striplings making fair merry, and no doubt spreading the plague well about. Not a care had these rogues for the health of their elders!"
Thinking they'd found the holy grail of a fascinating story to share in times where Twitter's trending hashtags seem to always have the word COVID in them, hundreds of people tweeted this quote, even though it was quickly found to simply be a modern quote from a Twitter account dedicated to typing and writing like Samuel Peyps. In all fairness, the digital world is full of smoke and mirrors, with comments often relayed through the lens of humor and satire - or in this case, a genuine sense of reminding people that staying at home is the right thing to do - so this isn't something to bemoan or feel flustered by. But it is a reminder that when it comes to authority, and it when it comes to history, what's online isn't necessarily always what it seems.
I'm not suggesting that all printed books are valid and truthful to history, but what a printed book does do is offer a sense of clarity in context. Printed books often go through rigorous historical analysis, checks, proofreading, editing, and has to go through the actual process of being printed, distributed, sold.
McCullough's text offers a fascinating insight into how America fought for its independence, but its citation of sources and acknowledgement of resources allow us to go beyond and form our own sense of what that history means. The online world so rarely offers that all important back story - what are we reading, who's prepared it, where can we go for more information to develop our own ideas?
I think that's why, during those few hours spent with a book, my mind felt clear. I was able to read what was on the page without distraction, or a sense of cynicism or uncertainty. I'm under no illusion that print also has the potential to mislead, intentionally or not (Dewey Defeats Truman being a case in point), but in these complex and challenging times, where we're at home reading through countless articles, constant updates and a relentless cycle of news online, I think it's incumbent on us as readers to be more considerate of what we read and share, and how that process of sharing may affect other people's actions.
Beyond that, getting away from the computer screen is a great way to declutter ones own mind. My partner and I immediately stocked up on books before going into lockdown, so we always have that capacity to focus on something which, through the ages, has helped people persevere through countless pandemics, wars, tragedies. I think I'll be taking George Washington's advice on how to survive this three week lockdown: through perseverance and spirit. Sitting with my printed books around me helps to do just that.
On a side note, if you appreciate and admire printed books, do check out the Folio Society. Their books are printed in a high quality way which makes them almost like works of art in themselves. I like to keep mine in a bookcase, knowing that one day they can be passed on to the next generation, so that they can understand just why the written word is so valuable. McCullough's 1776 can be found on the Folio Society's website at https://www.foliosociety.com/uk/1776.html.