Matthew Richardson

In defence of books

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‘The coalition’s proposal to slash funding for the arts…and humanities risk not just losing a generation of artists, but also a generation of critical and creative thinkers’.

So says an indignant Guardian letter buttressed by a shopping list of academics. A familiar clarion call. But surprise, surprise what unites the subjects threatened with impoverishment?

Books. It all, in the end, comes back to books. No matter how celebrated the lecturer, no matter how state-of-the-art the facilities, no matter how revolutionary and innovative the course, arts and humanities degrees at least are all about books.

    

Lectures are little more than a splash and a skim through material, a verbal snifter instead of the readerly gulp. At the end of the hour, the only place to point to is the booklist. The only thing essential to pass a humanities degree, the sole thing any historian, theologian, philosopher or literary critic absolutely can’t do without, is access to a well-stocked library.

So, after the latest bout of fist-shaking and snarly student protests, perhaps books will add another revolutionary shade to their long history of dissent. If you want debate: find two authors that disagree. If you want engagement: settle down and read and re-read a concept until it softens. If you want incisive reasoning, see academics at their confident best.

I suppose one small fillip might be that the current NUS President, Aaron Porter, apparently studied English. He should have an interest in defending the cause. But what’s needed is not just tweedy defences of the canon. If they do anything, hopefully the student protests might shatter marmoreal degree structures and provoke a question: if books are at the centre of any arts and humanities degree, does every student need the three year residence of a physicist or a biologist? If lab work and placements aren’t needed, couldn’t lectures be recorded and listened to at a student’s leisure? Fundamentally, can things be done some other way that isn’t so financially crippling? Otherwise, how will the humanities in all their USP-less and unprofitable eccentricity evolve? How does the weakest of the pack avoid extinction?

The answers should return us to books. The humanities began there, and there lies the secret for their future. Because, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, the beauty of books is their technological wizardry. Before blogs, iTunes and online tutorials, books were the original Open University.