Comforting clutter

Digital books and music might be the ultimate convenience, placing our entire heritage at our fingertips – but we risk losing the very ephemera that makes us who we are, says Jim Davies

Jim Davies

There’s something so beautifully simple and seductive about the iPad, that for a moment it had me on the turn. Yes, I could finally imagine myself reading a novel on screen, an act of unutterable profanity I’d previously railed against in these very pages. Don’t get me wrong, given the choice I’d still plump for good old ink and paper, and the rival digital tablets leave me cold. But even so, now there’s a teeny chink in my armour I really didn’t foresee.

As it happens, I’m already carrying around the Complete Works of Shakespeare and a hefty PG Wodehouse compendium on my mobile phone. The pair of them cost me just over £1 to download, and I smile at the ironic clash of cultures whenever I remember they’re ther… although I’ve never once tried to read them.
There’s no doubt that digital consumption is handy, space-saving and eco-friendly. But it’s also cold, impersonal and forgettable. The estimable Mike Dempsey recently blogged about the small forest of D&AD Annuals cluttering up his studio, suggesting that a new digital format might be the way to go. But if he was a young whipper-snapper who’d just had his first piece of work accepted into the book, would he feel quite the same? In the Bible or a PDF? No contest.

Books have a certain weight and personality, while a digital document is somehow insignificant and ephemeral. Even a paperback is like a friend. You share time and thoughts together, jot notes and ideas in it. Sand falls from its pages after you’ve been on holiday, and you can check the glorious Jon Gray design on the cover every time you reach for the bookmark. The book becomes part of you. The bumps and creases are your bumps and creases. After you’ve finished, it will probably find a place on your bookshelf – part of your space and part of your memory. ’Books do furnish a room,’ as Anthony Powell observed.

Because a physical object marks a moment in time. It was made, bought and enjoyed on a particular day, and for a certain period of your life, you enter a relationship that’s tactile and tangible. A digital doppelgänger is more like a shadow or a ghost – there but not there, insubstantial and unsatisfying.

When it comes to music, the notion of Spotify and Last FM are revolutionary. Vast digital lending libraries you can tweak and tune until they can virtually read your mind – why would you ever need to buy another song? And yet, vinyl records are currently enjoying a remarkable renaissance – this despite the fact that they cost up to a third as much as a CD. The Richer Sounds website claims that, ’If current trends continue, then it could only be a matter of a few years’ time before sales of turntables actually outperform CD players again.’

DJs and aficionados have been banging on for years about the warmth and authenticity of the analogue sound that vinyl produces, but there’s more to it than that. The attraction of vinyl lies in the ritual of gently undressing them and laying them on the turntable, the fact that you can watch the needle at work – and, of course, for you designers out there, the generous 12-inch canvas of the sleeve.

Whether we like it or not, we humans are natural hoarders and collectors. We like to nest with our ephemera around us. Like physical diary entries, they are the reminders and tokens of our existence. Now, where did I put my copy of Design Week?

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total

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