I have just attended an interesting Mostly Books talk by well known author and publisher Susan Hill at the Abingdon Guildhall.
Ms Hill has recently published 'Howard's End is on the Landing', an odyssey which began when she started noticing all the books in her house she had never read or hadn't read for years and determined to take a year out to rediscover them all.
In the course of so doing, she came to reflect on how much books meant to her and what would happen if books disappeared from our lives and shelves completely in years to come - namely if the e-Book came to replace the physical book and designers, printers, binders and bookshops all closed down with the consequent loss of many thousands of jobs. Worse still, whole generations to come would be denied the joy of reading, thumbing through, scribbling their name on and owning physical books. And there would be no repositories for lost love letters and forgotten fivers to drop out of either!
A gloomy thought, but Ms Hill believes the threat is very real if we don't wake up to it fast and support our local bookshops and Libraries in addition to rediscovering our book collections, large and small.
Personally I agree up to a point. I think books and publishing will take a nosedive like cinemas did when video came along, but ultimately I believe those that survive will eventually enjoy a resurgence as we all realise that however high screen resolution becomes, even the most ardent IT lover needs a screen break every so often and does not burn to look at screens of one kind or another 24/7, and even if they did, would their own system take it? Electronic fog is already a recognised syndrome, linked to headaches, eye strain, shoulder strain (through hours of hunching), lack of concentration and therefore productivity when attention is scattered, and depression when one reduces and possibly even withdraws one's engagement with the outside sensual world to become isolated. As a hospice nurse friend also testifies, brain tumours are on the rise in increasingly young patients whatever the experts may say about minimal microwaves being emitted from all these screens, phones and devices to interfere with the body's natural electro-magnetic field.
Furthermore I believe the human need for tactility is not about to go away. A book has three dimensions, is compact, doesn't rely on batteries or electricity, can be read at one's own pace in almost any setting, won't crash, doesn't carry the risk of electronic fog or undue eye strain and it is nice to hold, to own and to cherish, not least with the ever-increasing range of innovative jacket textures and designs available today. More to the point though, a house is just not a home if not adorned with books and the majority of my friends are equally bibliophilic - one to the point of layering a wooden plank between each row of books up to the ceiling on all four sides of his living room with what can only be described as a scant regard for Health & Safety! Plus why would pubs buy secondhand books by the yard to decorate their interiors if they held no appeal? It is also satisfying to momentarily gloat over a book you have just finished, mentally congratulating yourself for getting through it, particularly if thick, its physicality an instant visual gauge. Conversely I remember being disgusted by a former housemate who seemed to own only two books about how to keep tropical fish - and even those had been given to him!
I really do not fathom how the gift of a book with a beautifully-designed and tactile jacket, its own distinct personality and physicality could ever be replaced by someone saying 'Happy Christmas darling - I've got you that download you wanted for your e-Book thingummy' and the reply 'Thank you darling - what a GORGEOUS download, I shall cherish it always!', never mind the challenge of obtaining an author-signed copy! There would be nothing special about it in the slightest, even if accompanied by somersaulting screen graphics.
Rather embarrassingly, I also happen to completely lack the ability to read long documents on screen without an insatiable desire to 'print them out to read and digest properly', despite my conflicting green proclivities which should preclude such behaviour! Perhaps this also reflects a subconscious desire to make the words real and capture them somehow as I don't quite trust things not to evaporate back into the ether - as happened to a cherished exchange of romantic e-mails many moons ago following a system upgrade! As for those PDF forms you're meant to fill in online, but never can....
To get back to books though, while the sexy print-on-demand machine still hasn't materialised in most bookshops ready to print a single copy of any book requested of it for no more than the cover price, whether-in-or-out-of-print at the touch of a button, and despite being well under £20k now (will the technology become the fax machine of the book world I wonder, to be swiftly gazumped by the e-Book?), there are some encouraging signs that the 3D book is making a renaissance already with the rise of the Literary Festival and the bookshop event, whether as one-off or part of an author tour. Then there are all the tie-ins that are possible with some books on the merchandise or related product front and the rise of the book blog, promoting and sharing books. This blog is only an occasional book blog, but I can go on at length about books as you can see. Let us also not forget the tandem springing up of all the Book Clubs and Bookcrossers networks all over the place. Cause to believe that the patient still breathes, surely?
On a more serious note the book trade could help itself by
1. Shooting anyone still responsible for naff jacket design/denying the author a say as to whether the cover complements the book, no matter how severely the wrong cover can impact on sales.
2. Making all booksellers undertake an NVQ in Customer Service or be counselled as to an alternative career if they cannot be friendly, efficient, SMILE and look as if they enjoy selling books.
3. Publishers could refrain from giving the lion's share of their advance and publicity budgets to the likes of Dawn French or Jeremy Clarkson at the expense of all their non-celebrity (some might say 'proper') authors, who are increasingly starving in their garrets and facing threats of eviction, even if outwardly successful published authors.
Finally parents could help ensure the future of the book trade by raising their children to love books and visit libraries from the time they are old enough to toddle. (tip, it's also a cheap way of keeping them out of your hair if you can absorb them in a book while you enjoy some peace and quiet), backed up by their children's schools making the 3 R's a priority once more.
But enough such rumination, I fear the electronic fog is fast descending...