Prospects of the City: Published with my principles intact
In which the prospector confronts the prospect of a Copenhagen from which the book is absent for the first time in its history.
Readers over readies
Not long ago a big Copenhagen publisher offered to digitalise and publish my entire back-catalogue of novels and essays as electronic texts. For a novelist who has had trouble publishing in his native country since the publication of his critical essay ‘Victim of Welfare. An Essay on State and Individual in Denmark’ in 1995, this was a welcome invitation indeed.
When, however, I stipulated that the books must be published simultaneously as e-texts and paperbooks (print-on-demand) so that the readers would have the choice between the intangible and the tangible, the deal narrowed down to just ‘Chop Suey’, my bestselling novel from 1994.
My cold dead hands …
It comes down to this: I do not want my novels and essays – my work in short – to exist only in electronic form. I feel so strongly about this that I would rather my books disappear from the face of the earth than have them go on existing only in an ephemeral electronic form that can be edited and even deleted entirely without my being able to stop it.
Like man is not man without a physical body, a book is not a book if it has no physical existence. When I hold a beloved book in my hands, it is like being in the company of a close companion. When I keep a beloved book on my shelf, I know that it will remain the same forever and never change on me, no matter what. If the state police wants to impound it in order to feed its present book-burnings, it must break into my home and arrest me first.
No longer bookended
Thing is, I do not trust an electronic text. And what’s more: I have no reason to. The point was driven home to me when the publisher of the electronic version of Orwell’s ‘1984’ one day, with no further ado, recalled the text from the readers’
Right now the Copenhagen library system is busying itself burning copies of books that have not been checked out at least once in the last two years: classics and pulp indiscriminately. And as if this is not bad enough, the largest used second-hand shop in Copenhagen has declared bankrupcy and will close.
Had I not long ago given up all hope for our civilization, I would do it now. Vangsgaard on Fiolstræde is the last of a long string of second-hand book shops to go out of business. If it goes on this way, there will soon be no second-hand book shops left on the streets of Copenhagen, where formerly there was one to be found on every other corner.
Closing the books on
We must question what is lost when the book has disappeared as a physical presence from our lives – and we only have electronics left to sustain us? As far as I am concerned, we will have lost more than ‘just’ the books.
To repeat Henry Miller’s words from the preface to ‘The Air-conditioned Nightmare’ (1941): “This world which is in the making fills me with dread … It is not a world I want to live in.”
But then Miller died before the electronic age; and when he wrote the above, he did not yet have his children. I cannot help wondering how a man like Miller would have coped with the electronic form of death that pervades life these days.
As the author of the 1995 essay ’Victim of Welfare. An Essay on State and Individual in Denmark’ and 2011 novel ’Wagon 537 Christiania’, Per Smidl is no stranger to controversy. After 12 years of self-imposed exile in Prague, he is back in his native Copenhagen, a city he will always have a unique perspective on.