Book reviews: A History of the book | St Kilda

An archaeologist inspects an inscription on the Jehoash tablet discovered in Jerusalem. Picture: Getty

An archaeologist inspects an inscription on the Jehoash tablet discovered in Jerusalem. Picture: Getty

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WHAT a clever conceit for a book this is; one which combines intellectual excellence with coffee-table glory.

A History Of The Book In 100 Books

Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad

British Library Publications, £25

A history of the book done through books! But the real story here is not about “The Death Of The Book”, or e-publishing replacing paper publishing, or even “Look at this lovely reproduction of the Book of Kells, or the First Folio”, or the artistic intervention into a book such as Tom Phillips’ perpetually delighting A Humument.

This is actually a book about technology. Forget your iPad – how about the iBark, the iKnotted-Rope, the iScroll and the iClay and the Pi-Pyrus. Humans have found wonderful ways to record thought in inscribed or twisted or engraven or printed forms since Adam was in short trousers. The idea that the codex volume, or even the printed codex volume, was the be all and end all of the book forgets the past as much as it rankles at the future.

This book of books is admirable in its gaze outwith the Occident: we have the Chinese Yongle dictionary, the Tripitaka Koreana, India’s palm-leaf Perfection Of The Wisdom Sutra, Burmese folded books and Ethiopian gospels, Islamic health guides (with illustrations which outwit the taboo on representing the human image) and the first book printed in Africa – the Sefer Abudraham in case it comes up in any pub quizzes. Extra points for knowing it was printed in Hebrew script.

A similar openness typifies the approach to the book as we know it in the West. I am truly delighted to know now that the first book published with photographs was Atkins’ Photographs Of British Algae in 1843, that Lothar Meggendorfer pioneered contemporary paper engineering (I put part of my bibliophilia down to Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House and I fear to say how much I covet my copy of the Renhart edition of the Game Of Thrones: A Pop Up Guide To Westeros), and to encounter Tango With Cows by the Soviet poet Vasily Kamensky, the first, and probably only, “Ferro-Concretist” writer. Even looking at the page makes me want to touch the actual book.

As we continue through the 20th century, the authors cleverly sidestep the question that set the idea running for their own book. Will the book survive? Well, the book has never just been the book. A few more examples of innovative work – The Silent History, perhaps, or the app for The Waste Land, might have tempered the “calm down, dears” tone of some parts.

The section on what are called “artist’s books” could have been expanded to another hundred: as a collector of them, I was regretful they did not expand on this topic: Gael Turnbull’s poem written on a Mobius strip and caged in a wickerwork box or Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta – a series of inscriptions which is a garden which is a provocation which is a place and thing of beauty.

The book is dead? Humanity has been making marks that make meanings for 45,000 years. The technology to continue this is not even in its infancy yet.

Stuart Kelly

St Kilda: A People’s History

Roger Hutchinson

Birlinn, £20

IT MAY be the effect of its extraordinary cliffs, but visitors and authors often become giddy when writing about St Kilda, the most westerly island in the Outer Hebrides.

Cool heads are shaken by a sudden frenzy. Eyes mist over – and not just because of the fog that frequently settles on the archipelago. Fictions such as the Lover’s Stone are held true even by those who act in a calm, rational manner throughout the remainder of their lives.

Roger Hutchinson is not among those who react that way. Instead, he presents here a clear-eyed view of the island and its history. Sifting through the evidence, he examines the work of both latter-day travellers and those who have researched the realities of the St Kilda community since the last 36 residents left Village Bay in August 1930.

In doing this, he shows us the length of time their human population relied for sustenance on the sea-birds nesting on its crags and skerries – a period stretching from the years when Mesolithic hunters visited its shoreline to its people’s final decades.

Weaving together a multitude of stories, he provides us with a real account of that society, unlike the romanticised versions often presented in the past.

Yet even as he performs this task, he never fails to credit marvels – the savage beauty of the cliffs and sea-birds that have spawned so many legends. Their magnificence may provide the reason why so many visitors have only retained a toe-hold on reality when writing about its shores.

Hutchinson also presents the passing of that community in context, noting how other islands, such as Pabbay and Mingulay, also lost their people in the early 20th century. It is a continuing struggle, as any observer of the present precarious state of many of Scotland’s islands should be able to note.

Hutchinson has done us all a great favour in writing the definitive history of this community. No more needs to be written. There are other islands that require our attention now.

Donald S Murray

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