Friday, 20 November 2009

Some of My Best Friends Are Books

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...


Steve said...

MP3s haven't killed CDs and CDs haven't killed vinyl. Tactility, as you say, is irreplaceable both as a human pleasure and a need so I think the book will be safe. My little 'uns already have big personal libraries and insatiable appeitites for reading. We're bringing them up the right way!

Reluctant Blogger said...

I am with you on not being able to read long documents on screen. I always have to print them off.

I love books and given that I mostly seem to read in the bath or by the pool (not my own - I mean whilst my boys are training) using electronic devices is not really practical.

I think the internet often encourages people to buy more books. You read about a book on someone's blog and you think "ooh that sounds good" and go out and buy it. Well, I do. I often don't get round to reading it but that's a time management issue of mine!

My children read a lot and have never asked for an e-book. They probably read a book every two days on average.

garfer said...

Imagine if I fell asleep in the bath while reading one of those gizmos. My gonads might be electrocuted.

Books, like the Orthodox Church, survive.

Portable and expendable, suitable for throwing at stupid people, and decorous when strewn and not shelved.

And you look intelligent when you carry them, even if you don't read them.

Nota Bene said...

We have a roomful of books passed down by the boy's grandmother...can't see a roomful of e-books would have the same emotional meaning. there's a place for digital stuff...but not to replace the real mccoy

Annabel Gaskell said...

Going by the number of copies of HEIOTL sold on the night, (her) books will certainly not go out of fashion! I just can't imagine a home without books.

The Sagittarian said...

Oh yes, you can't beat the 'feel' of a book! My mother recently gave me a book that belonged to my great grandmother, inside is the inscription that it was given to her on 9 February 1892. You don't get the same feel from a screen!!
One of the things we have never skimped on is books, and both our girls have heaps of them which they won't part with for love nor money.

Rol said...

'Hear hear' on much of that. After moving house, and carrying all those books from one home to the other, I briefly considered converting to ebook... but it was never going to happen.

But I'm more flustered by the idea of someone taking a year off to catch up on their reading... oh, the luxury!

KAZ said...

I can't see the day when I can buy e-books at the OXFAM or Cancer Research shops.

Wisewebwoman said...

What you said, Laura. Nothing like a book, I'm an avid reader, as are my kids and my grandkid.
I'd like to see every TV and computer unplugged for a week a month to encourage others to read. It is becoming a dying art.
We shall overcome.

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The Poet Laura-eate said...

Steve, if there were a national medal for bringing kids up the right way (and hey, that's not a bad idea), I reckon that you and Mrs Bloggertropolis GTi would be high on the nomination list!

RB - (see above) - a national honour you should also be nominated for. All sorts of things prompt me to buy books from conversations with people to seeing them recommended in a newspaper to searching for them online or being inspired by someone's blog recommendation as you say.

That's a good point Garfer. Books are intelligence kudos devices (IKD's). And you are right, nothing less would be worth risking your gonads for.

Notabene - I'm setting up that medal-stamping plant as we speak.

AB - welcome. Glad to hear it sold so well and enjoyed your posting on the evening too.

Sagittarian - I think this is where that gold medal for raising kids right (see above) goes international!

Rol, you can't complain. You are a more voracious culture vulture than anyone I know - reading, films, gigs, blogs, not to mention producing your own high class writing and magazine - I don't know where you fit the day job, let alone the girlfriend, in!

Kaz - you are so right, the end of books would be a real blow for charity shops too.

WWW - you are so right. It is horribly easy to become addicted to the electronic fog. Despite my determination to remain an e-book luddite, I have the concentration of a gnat and a horrible addiction to e-mail in particular. In my defence, I had the concentration of a gnat even pre-internet. However I try and switch things off at regular intervals and maintain a life in the outside world - it's the only way. And read books of course. Just tell the grandkids if they are truly multi-media, they can't overlook books!

StuckInABook said...

Ah, you were there too! It was a great evening. (You weren't the blogger who asked a question, were you?)

StuckInABook said...
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