Thursday, 23 August 2012

The death of books - a virtual nightmare

VISITING other people in their homes, one of the first unspoken questions in my mind is usually: “What books do they have?” Rapidly followed, all too often, by: “Where are the books?”
In this reasonably affluent, reasonably educated society, a home without books is one of the mysteries of the world. To me, anyway.
Evidently, to most people a home without books – or at any rate with what I would consider pathetically few – is normal.
No wonder the publishing industry is in crisis.
More books are published now than ever before. More individual titles, that is. Total sales have been falling for years, though.
In the first quarter of 2012, fiction sales were down 18 per cent on the same period last year, a near-catastrophic rate of decline that cannot be sustained for long.
Of course, JK Rowling has had nothing new out so far this year – there was nothing from her last year either – and by March the EL James, Fifty Shades phenomenon had not yet launched.
But those monster successes merely underline the main point. There may be more titles than ever for book-buyers to choose from, but a small handful account for nearly all the books that are actually bought.
It’s a depressing thought that those few blockbusters are needed to keep their publishers going. Even more depressing that by stocking a few select titles among the groceries, the big supermarkets threaten the existence of specialist bookshops in the same way they have been putting other small shops out of business for decades.
A good bookshop is an Aladdin’s cave of delights – while a big supermarket is my personal prototype of Hell.
In my experience, one of the few better places one can go than into a bookshop is into a book.
Since I first “got” reading, at the relatively late age of seven, there’s hardly been a moment when I haven’t had at least one book on the go. These days it’s usually one fiction, one history and various volumes of poetry.
I spend more time reading than I do watching television, even including the sport which accounts for most of my viewing.
I realise this makes me rather unusual these days. As does my house, which has more books in every room – including the landing, the kitchen and the loo – than most people seem to have altogether.
For an anti-materialist, I’m an inveterate acquirer of books. But not exactly a hoarder – several rucksacks-full have to go to Oxfam each year to make room for the new acquisitions.
A possible solution to the space problem, which I’ve considered lately, is the e-reader.
There seem suddenly to be nearly as many of those as real books in the hands of other train and tube travellers. And I can certainly see the advantage of taking one thinner-than-paperback device on holiday rather than lugging around a suitcase full of printed novels.
E-book sales apparently rose 366 per cent last year. Amazon, the biggest online bookseller by far, reported this month that e-books now outstrip their sales of the printed variety.
Which might be good news for trees, and the fuel cost of shipping heavy books. And might ultimately give me more house-room.
It’s also easier to self-publish an e-book than a real book, which might lead to a further explosion yet in the number of unread titles available.
But there’s a bad-news side too to this rapid switch to digital – and not just for those of us who love the heft, smell and feel of books and consider them the best furnishing for a home.
It’s not just that the Kindle could be the last nail in the coffin of the bookshop, either – though that is an imminent tragedy.
I was discussing with a friend the other day the way we used to carry our Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd albums around at school in the 1970s.
It wasn’t just for show (though of course it was a way of showing how cool you were). By passing our favourites around, we were able to expand each others’ tastes.
The CD lessened the ‘cool’ factor – they are simply not such attractive, showy artefacts as old-style albums. The cover-less, non-portable download then destroyed it.
Of course, modern technology allows downloads – and tracks ‘ripped’ from CDs – to be “shared”. But the digital files themselves are ephemeral, not things to be owned, kept, passed around. They cannot be browsed on the shelves of shops, or friends’ homes.
The visibility and portability of books, or records, is part of their point.
The book on a shelf is part of your own past, to be delved into again, or simply part of the structure of your life.
The e-book, once read, will be gone, probably never to be revisited. Certainly – since you never “own” the file but merely have it “on licence” – not to be lent to friends.
If printed newspapers become a thing of the past, of course I’ll care. If proper journalism can survive, though, the move to an online existence won’t much matter. News is ephemeral anyway – and is easier to retrieve online than from old papers.
I don’t mourn the Encyclopedia Britannica, killed by the more useful internet.
But if all books go the same way, we’ll all be much poorer for their passing.


I COULD see a lot of sense in First getting the west coast main line rail franchise, whatever Richard Branson thought about Virgin losing it. The more lines are run by the same company, the easier it will be to re-nationalise them all when at last we get a real Labour government.
I don't think it's what the Tories had in mind. But I was surprised at the enthusiastic response I got from all around when I suggested it on Ipswich station the other day as we waited for a late-running train.

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