Time to revive the Cult of the Book?

Recent visits to Japan, South Korea and the British Museum’s current exhibition, Ming: 50 years that changed China, have forcibly reminded me of the passion with which people have made and cared for books and the primacy of the printed book in the development and maintenance of civilised and cultured society. Perhaps we have Buddhism to thank for energising this commitment and passion, as faithful copying of scripture was at the top of the list of the ten essential religious practices in fourth-century India and the ‘cult of the book’ is clearly mandated in the early (first- or second-century) Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra, which – still in print in many languages today – urges Buddhists to study and memorise devotional texts and to create or obtain a good copy and to care for it.

Some of the world’s oldest printed books (many from China), still reside in the libraries of the Buddhist temples of Kyoto, heavily guarded 24×7, as they have been for well over a thousand years, yet available to visiting monks, scholars and other visitors for study and reference over all that time. Books were always the first objects to be rescued from fire, which was – and is – a regular threat to these wooden buildings and many were lost, but many more added over the centuries. The early books are not only religious texts – poetry and philosophy form the subject of many and were equally valued. As the development of printing technology advanced from fixed woodblock printing to the introduction of moveable type, first made of wood and then metal (incidentally, the first books printed using moveable metal type were made in Korea in the early thirteenth century, almost a decade before Gutenberg’s Bible was printed in Germany in 1455), the early printing houses and the later publisher-bookshops became magnets for creative people and hubs for the development of ideas, culture and learning, with publishing as the engine of intellectual progress.

Rulers and governments have frequently attempted to control the power and influence of the presses – the Ming Emperors did so (by owning the presses and authorising all that they produced) and several countries attempt to do the same today, with the government of North Korea ironically heading the list. In contrast, it is heartening to learn about Paju, South Korea’s thriving Book City, 20 miles north of Seoul (not very far from the border with North Korea), where every building is part of the book business and 10,000 people are employed as part of a government-seeded business development initiative: South Korea is investing in its publishing industry, as part of its zest for technology-driven economic growth. Perhaps the next New Town in Britain could be a Book City?

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