Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Is this really the begining of the end for the book?

My passion for the printed word really took hold when I was about 14 and found a clipping from The Times carefully stored in an attic box. It dated from June 1815 and reported allied victory at Waterloo. I had never felt so close to history as a living continuing thing. When the clipping was put away it must already have been eighty or more years old, I don’t know why it was kept, but I do know someone else is likely to find it like I did, maybe not for another 80 years and I wonder how it will make them feel?

Browsing through Susan Hill's ‘Howards End is on the Landing’, a book about books (once again see Stuck in a Book for a proper review) and our relationships with them, reminded me of that clipping. ‘Howards End is on the Landing’ has gathered a real buzz amongst bloggers; clearly a much anticipated book but reading the comments after Simon’s review I can’t help but notice a lot of the excitement is about the appearance of the book, and it is a lovely looking thing; it glows like a ruby on the shelf in my local bookshop – ridiculously seductive.

I don’t have an internet connection at home, so generally online time is confined to an hour or so visiting a few favourite places with a fairly specific purpose in mind, but for the last 2 days I’ve had unlimited access and few distractions so have actually browsed. Persephone books pointed me in the direction of an article John Sutherland wrote in the F.T. back in August, and one from Lucy Mangan in The Guardian. Lucy had readers block and decided the best way to fix it was to rearrange her books, to take back ownership of them. Susan Hill decided to spend a year exploring her own collection for much the same reasons. John Sutherland talks about the arrival of the E-book.

In all honesty I don’t get the E-book concept. I’m far to in love with the book, especially the novel, as an object (it’s accepted in retail that once the customer holds something they’re likely to buy it) more than half the excitement of ordering from amazon is in waiting for the post man to deliver something other than a bill. I can’t imagine not picking up and physically handing over a book to lend, or the equally physical pleasure of getting it back. Nor can I imagine not having shelves of books to browse until something just the right size and shape presents itself to my hand, eye and mind. I’m proud of my books, happy to expose my personality through them just as much as through the cloths I wear.

Perhaps more to the point I can’t imagine relying on something that need batteries, and will be prone to break when I inevitably drop it, or just when I’m in the middle of something. Presumably the technology will develop to a point where it’s possible to be reading half a dozen things consecutively on the same machine, and in a format that won’t be obsolete within months of you buying into it. I suppose it’s possible that I’ll overcome my dislike of reading large amounts on screen, and loose my romantic affection for the creases and marks on a book that remind me of our history together. I would miss the bookshop haunting that anticipates a long awaited new release, and the Harry Potter levels of excitement on those rare occasions when something really takes off, I’m not sure what authors would sign but so be it. Admittedly I’m prone to lose things, and misplacing my entire library, or worse, having it stolen wouldn’t amuse me, but if it’s the future I suppose I’ll have to get used to it. Even I can see some positive possibilities in being able to download books like music, especially if it improves availability and price for rare and out of print texts.

What really intrigues me though is that on the one hand I see more books about books than ever. From coffee table tomes on cover art to autobiography by book (‘Howards End is on the Landing’ again), to writing about books (which isn’t just confined to what’s in them) via blogs and columnists than I might ever have imagined. On the other hand booksellers are aggressively promoting E-Books in a way that suggests they see the writing on the wall. Will we be part of the last generation to own books in much the same way that we’re part of the last generation to write letters, or will the book in its paper form remain as popular as ever?


  1. I am so envious that you have recieved your copy! I think the e-books thing is very interesting; they are certainly being pushed hard, but I don't actually know anyone who owns one or who would want to.

    With regards to letter-writing, I still write copious letters by hand, but the current Royal Mail problems makes this almost silly when I can zap across a message that arrives instantaneously.

  2. I found it in waterstone's on sunday and gave up all the points on my card to justify buying it a day after I declared no more book buying for a while. It's just such a darn pretty book I couldn't leave it behind.

  3. It arrived! I will be reading it tomorrow as I have a friend about to arrive for cake in 10 minutes...

  4. Having worked in the publishing field for the past few years, I can definitely see the benefit of ebooks, particularly in fields like medicine, where having references and access to the latest journals literally in one's pocket is an incredible asset for a physician or nurse. But I suspect most people simply love the printed thingyness of a book - holding it, seeing it on a shelf, curling up with it. My books are my friends - I can't imagine feeling the same way with something I downloaded.

  5. e-books don't smell good like real books do. Even if the book does disappear, I comfort myself knowing that the existing supply is enough to keep me busy for the rest of my lifetime.