Friday, 10 September 2010


That thing where authors sell books to publishers who sort them out and distribute them for money is obviously only part of book culture. I don't think it's likely that there will be a wholesale move to eBooks any time soon in the way that cassettes got replaced by CDs, just because the codex format of book is such a brilliant one. It has tons of advantages, perhaps foremost among them how easy it is to move from place to place within the book -- I don't know yet but I rather suspect no one is going to want to read a book with endnotes on the Kindle -- and also how little is needed in the way of accessories to get at the words. Plus, they are likeable and there are so many of them out there. I don't think the codex is going to die out. But maybe there will be a big shift for certain types of book, perhaps chief among them 3-for-2 paperbacks, Tesco books, cheap genre fiction, casual consumable throw-away books. I can't think of any way in which this might be to the detriment of the publishers and authors -- except insofar as they will eventually feel it if book culture suffers damage. Take the question of how many people read each copy of a book. Presumably authors and publishers feel that the ideal number is 1, and with the current model of ebook-distribution they can pretty much achieve that. But then some of those putative second readers of books might like the author, or the genre, and this might lead to more sales in the future.

So the thing that concerns me about this likely shift has to do with the implications of fewer chances to be physically proximate to a random book. To be honest it seems likely to me that other things will pop up to take their places in unpredictable ways, and that serendipity will still occur. I have often heard people bemoan the loss through digitisation of discovering the book next to the book you're looking for on the library shelves: but not only do most library catalogues show you things in shelf-mark context if you want, digitisation has helped me discover quite a few obscure references in places I wouldn't have thought to have looked, quite randomly while searching for other things in Google Books or Google Scholar. So I think it evens out, pretty much. And for myself these days I mostly decide what to read from reviews and recommendations, rather than by browsing in bookshops. (The big exception is the Waterstone's near the Cathedral in Exeter, which always has good stuff on its shelves.)

But I'd be sad if opportunities are lost to the young, with their unformed tastes and lean pockets. The picture at the top of this post shows excellent nephew one Sunday afternoon when he got bored with us all and went to fetch a book instead. (I can tell him from experience, that behaviour will only be treated as cute for a limited number of years.) When I was a kid I, like many, read anything I could get my hands on, which meant terrible trash at my dad's parents', repulsive Reader's Digest abridged books at my mum's parents', utterly random things from book stalls at village fetes, pretty much anything the library was selling for 20p or less, my parents' books, and stuff from the local book exchange which sold Mills and Boons by weight. Also, of course, second-hand bookshops and those small local independent bookshops, now largely disappeared (which were actually pretty rubbish and don't quite deserve the sentimental way we remember them). If it's that very class of entertaining, consumable literature which is likely to go less physical, won't it be harder for children to bump into books randomly? They say that having books lying around is a good thing for children's literacy, but I'm not quite sure how that will work if the easy-come-easy-go books which used to stack up on the windowshelves of spare rooms are instead intangibly stored on devices.

Which doesn't mean it won't work, of course, just because I can't quite imagine it. Maybe when he's old my nephew will reminisce about how he loved to visit his mad aunt because she'd let him play with her ebook reader, and that's how he first discovered Wilkie Collins or something. Maybe gadgetising books will make them more appealing to some kids who might not otherwise have become readers. And they will be in luck about having the old and reasonably obscure at their fingertips, thanks to Project Gutenberg and the like. Perhaps the kids of tomorrow will grow up voracious readers of Anthony Trollope and Sir Walter Scott.

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