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World Book Day and the Gutenberg Parenthesis

World Book Day and the Gutenberg Parenthesis

On this year’s World Book Day, Nick Spencer reflects on the importance of books and why that led to him starting a podcast about them. 07/03/2024

Long gone are the days when my wife or I had to work out how to dress one of the kids up as Hermione Granger or the BFG or – heaven forbid – one of those creatures from James and the Giant Peach, in the 45 minutes we had between waking up and heading off on the school run because… agggghhh, dammit, I’d forgotten it was World Book Day!!!

Yes, World Book Day, that peculiar form of torture directed at busy, forgetful parents is upon us once again. Pound(s) off books, authors in assemblies, the songs and resources of MC Grammar, and, of course, lots and lots of Harry Potter costumes.

I mock, gently, because you know I don’t mean it. If I have an idolatry for which a modern–day Jeremiah would curse me, it is my worship of the book. My בָּמָה – bamah – “high place” is an Oxfam second hand book shop, where you can find a book you didn’t know you wanted for a price you can’t refuse. My study is a health and safety nightmare of unbalanced books and toppling towers. My sickness unto death is bibliophilia.

So I mock World Book Day because I love it, and I love it because we need it; seriously need it.

A few years ago, the Danish scholar Lars Ole Sauerberg coined the phrase “Gutenberg parenthesis” to capture the period in which the printed word was the basis of knowledge and communication. Sandwiched between millennia of oral culture on the one hand, and the image–heavy, “secondary orality” of the internet on the other, the 500 or so years in which the book was the foundation of our culture may end up being a rather anomalous interlude within human history.

It was an age inextricably tied up with the authority of sacred texts, and in particular with the Protestant emphasis on the Bible, and on the right and duty of all people to be able to read it. It was almost as if the holiness of that book rubbed off onto others. Perhaps not accidentally, it was an age in which the holy word leaked into written constitutions, contracts, representative government, parliamentary democracy, and the rule of law.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that none of these would have been, or could be, possible without society resting its authority on printed text. Nor am I saying that it will all fall apart if we do leave the “Gutenberg parenthesis” behind.

Nor – equally important – am I claiming that we should value books simply for these instrumental reasons. Let me read you The Gruffalo, my child, otherwise you’ll never appreciate the value of a written and codified constitution. Good luck with that on World Book Day.

What I am saying is that these things have grown up together, and the sustained, imaginative, empathetic attention demanded by the book is such a profound good that it is hard to see humans flourishing fully without it.

It is one of the reasons why Theos has been running the books podcast Reading our Times since 2020. It is because we are, so to speak, people of the book, inspired by the stories and ideas of one very important book, and alert to the importance of that sustained, imaginative, empathetic attention for the world in which we live. Reading our Times is, in its own words, a podcast “about books about ideas about us”. Two series a year, and increasingly at some live events (look out for us at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival in September this year), we engage with great thinkers and writers – from Daniel Dennet to Rowan Williams, Marilynne Robinson to Matt Goodwin – and talk about some inspiring books.

But our ultimate quarry is, if you pardon the phrase, the human soul. We want to try and understand better our selves, our good, our meaning. There are lots of ways of doing this. Books are not the final word on the human condition. But they are an important part of it.

So, hooray for World Book Day. For assemblies, discounts, authors, and MC Grammar. And for hastily constructed costumes, that look suspiciously like a tattered sheet hastily stapled together to look like a gown, a pair of old spectacles, a stick from the garden that looks vaguely like a wand, and badly drawn biro mark on the forehead.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos and host of Reading our Times.

Every episode of Reading our Times can be heard here.

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Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 7 March 2024

Books, Podcast, Reading Our Times


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