On a wall at the Bishopsgate Institute today, while visiting the London Radical Bookfair, I saw a quote from Voltaire:
“Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution. It is the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared.”
Inside the hall, folios (albeit only single-volume) were piled high on booksellers’ tables. Weighty, academic books with lots of long words. Now, I have nothing against academic books with long words (I no longer buy them, because I don’t read them*, but I have nothing against them), but Voltaire, I think, had a point. Rare is the currently-unconvinced individual whose mind will be changed by this stuff. I suppose attendees at the London Radical Bookfair are likely to be the already-converted, so perhaps the booksellers simply know their market. But I’m their market too (aren’t I?) and I wasn’t buying.
Where, too, was the fiction? Long or short. Perhaps I am biased in my faith that stories can change the world; but if they can, no one here was doing much to try that out.
(Honourable exception: the Letterbox Library, who stock kids’ books but no adult. And I did see a bit of poetry. I even bought some, along with something which claims to be a mixture of local history, folklore, and weird fiction, partly because I liked what I read of it, and partly out of relief that it was there at all.)
Upstairs were the zines. Plenty of pamphlets here; beautiful ones, too. And yet — what happened to the words? I’m sure zines used to have a mixture: plenty of just-word stuff, some half-and-half, some comic-style graphical storytelling, some straight art. Everything I saw on Saturday was heavy on the graphics end of things. Gorgeous, but word-light. Which is fine (if not my thing), but still — where have the words gone?
Online, possibly. Maybe words are better suited to screens; maybe artists have more incentive to create physical objects with their art. It seems faintly unsatisfying to me – why shouldn’t writers** want or get to create physical things too? Do the readers of plain words just not want physical things? Or is this the reflection of the ebook era?
After all, when it comes to getting the word out there, online has the edge, no question. If Voltaire were writing now, his pamphlets would be blogs. Perhaps, then, that is the explanation. The pamphlets and words and even the fiction live online, and it is the art and the long, deeply academic works that still need a physical form. Maybe that is a good thing, or at any rate not a bad one; maybe it is neither good nor bad, but just a thing.
And yet, I do wish that I’d been able to come away with my bag full of short stories and long ones and pamphlet-sized calls to action.
* The first anarchist bookfair I went to was in San Francisco, in 1999. I bought a compendium of the zine Temp Slave, and a book of anarchist essays. Temp Slave is dog-eared at the corners, and undoubtedly affected my attitude to the world of work; the anarchist essays remain unread.
** Non-artist writers, I mean, who do not also want to draw.