The Secret Life of Books
Tom Mole
Elliot & Thompson, £14.99
Review by Alastair Mabbott

Love letters to books tend to be celebrations of their content: language, life-changing ideas, the power of narrative and that special communion between author and reader. “But reading them is only one of the things we do with books, and not always the most significant,” says Tom Mole, Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Edinburgh. Mole wants us to learn how to see books as objects and to understand how we use them.

Lawyers pose in front of groaning bookshelves to project an air of competence and authority. Students brandish them in the hope of impressing or attracting others with similar tastes. Our books tell people who we are, or who we want to be. And buying a book, says Mole, is like joining a collective of like minds.

As they have so often been used as the vessels for sacred words, books have themselves become objects of veneration and carved out a symbolic role for themselves, not just to the extent that we swear oaths on them, but members of the US House of Representatives can choose to swear on any book, not just a religious text. Up until the last century, the tradition of keeping a record of births, deaths and marriages in the family Bible persisted. Books are still seen as ideal “threshold gifts”, marking the transition of one phase of life to the next. On a grander scale, they become the repository of a culture’s history and ethos. Mole notes how, as in Sarajevo and Mosul, libraries can become symbolic targets for attackers who want to see their enemies utterly demoralised and wiped from the face of the Earth.

On the level of the individual, a book lent or given, particularly if it’s inscribed, is a potent memento of a loved one, long after that person is gone or the relationship is over. But we’re in the age of streaming and e-readers now, and Mole doesn’t seem overly impressed. “Where a printed codex has a one-to-one relationship between the object and the content, an e-reader has a one-to-many relationship.” In other words, your Kindle isn’t Women in Love or Mrs Dalloway any more than your TV set is Line of Duty of Peaky Blinders. The connection between object and text has, if not broken, been made more tenuous. For Mole, reading an e-book is a “thinner” experience. But his response is backed up by research which found that e-book readers had only limited “proprietary feeling” towards them.

Seeking some kind of confirmation, I pick up my dad’s old copy of Poetical Works of Robert Burns, a veteran of countless Burns suppers, its yellow Post-It notes still marking selected poems (“Mailie”, “Mouse”, “A Man’s”) and their approximate timings. Obviously, its associations are unique to this copy, and no other could replace it. Furthermore, an inscription on the front reveals that its original owner was one Levi Fraser, who received it at Christmas 1915. Therein hangs a tale, entirely unrelated to Burns’ words, leading deeper into the secret life of books.