Fry’s Planet Word

I’ve been greatly enjoying Stephen Fry’s current BBC TV series ‘Fry’s Planet Word’ which in recent weeks has explored the origins of language, the role of swearing and the history of writing, among other subjects.

Fry is so deeply associated with modern technology, with Apple and Twitter, that it was especially interesting to hear his reflections on good old fashioned paper and ink. Indeed his reputation is such that when we were planning The Last Bookshop, we joked that the Boy’s Gamazone hologram might be entirely voiced by Stephen Fry, perhaps as a posthumous tribute to Fry’s endorsement of the holographic technologies developed in his own old age.

The fourth episode of the series, titled ‘Spreading the Word,’ highlighted the importance of modern technology in preserving old texts, and in taking the written word into new environments. But it also took time to compose a personal ode to the wonder of physical books, with Fry describing how he felt when he first encountered a published copy of his debut novel.

It was in interviewing Prof. Robert Darnton, the Director of Harvard University Library that the programme addressed the fate of physical books, and how we currently live in a time of media transition. Prof. Darnton was the voice of wise optimism, asserting that history tells us “one media does not displace another,” before going on to draw parallels with the co-existence of print with radio, and later radio with television, and later still TV with the Internet.

Fry himself sounded a little less certain about the future of libraries. And in his passion for such book temples, brought my own thoughts resolutely back to The Last Bookshop film, and our desire to champion buildings filled with tomes.

The rise of technology need not necessarily mean we must end up in the book-bereft fantasy world in which our film is set. And yet, a glance at our society shows us libraries under threat and bookshops increasingly unable to stay open.

I’ll leave the last thoughts to Mr Fry himself:

“Almost everything I am, I owe to libraries.

“It’s like a will-o’-the-wisp; one book lights another book, which lights another one, which lights another one. I suppose libraries still, for me, have this extraordinary charge: when I get in one I feel this buzz, it’s almost sexual.

“There’s something about the fact that behind all these bound copies there are all voices, there are people murmuring to you, seducing you, dragging you into their world. These are wonderful, magical places. And I suppose if I have a campaign that I’m really behind, it’s that of saving our libraries. Because everyone surely has the right to access the voices of the past.”

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