We’re pretty fond of apocalyptic prophecies promising the death of the book at the moment. Forget the usual Nostradamian meanderings on the death of the book trade…we’ve moved one better, to the actual demise of the physical object itself. No more books, in the future everyone will read from a screen!
Small children will gather in rapt bunches around a very old Josh and Sunday from B&B Books (long defunct as a business, since the Paper Wars of 2049…but leaving them with a comfortable income from Sunday’s wise early adoption of blogging!) to hear tales of how books were opened, what they smelled like, the incomparable excitement experienced when something long treasured and even longer forgotten slipped from between the pages and fluttered to the floor…the vast sense of potential and possibility embodied within the dry paper and board anatomy of these mythical beasts that have only existed in museums since the World Governing Authority banned learning anything at all in 2051. A brisk trade in black market books flourished for a while, the Bibliophile Underground refusing to lay down their reading lights and British Library bookmarks until finally they were ambushed and wiped out after a late night reading of “Rebel Words, Rebel Yells.” the last magnificent compilation of lyrical cris de coeur from Ernest Hilbert, erstwhile Poet Laureate and Mayor of Plathville; the Last Free City…
When I was a small boy, during what my family refers to as The Chaos Years, we moved into an enormous house on the Welsh Borders. It had recently been abandoned, as I recall, the previous occupants had done what used to be called a “Midnight Flit” abandoning most of their possessions and just disappearing into the Tory Sargasso that swallowed so many people at that time, my own family included.
The house was grand and Victorian, provided both of those words actually mean “trashed, damp, moldy and unsafe but really, really cheap.” It had a strange and exotic walled garden with cherry trees and a sundial, the whole thing so massively overgrown you half expected there to be a castle with a sleeping princess at the other end of it. Well, you might have expected that had you been a very young me.
There was a thing about this house (well, two things if you include the fact the my bedroom had a trapdoor in the floor that ended up in one of the outbuildings); there had been a library.
When I say “had been” I suppose that depends on your definition of library…the books were still there, but there were no longer any shelves. The books had been swept from the shelves in armloads and deposited in a massive conical heap in the middle of the floor.
From the first moment I entered that room, all that I had been; small, sickly, frightened, confused, maladjusted and lonely (I recall being those things, but in all honesty I was probably merely whiny and snivelly…rather than a nine year old incarnation of Byron, which despite my memories, seems unlikely) suddenly meant nothing.
I was free. I had weapons. I had discovered my super power. I felt lust, and the unforgettable sensation of an adventure beginning.
I didn’t see the peeling yellow wallpaper, or the flowers of brown damp or the rodent corpses. I just burrowed into the stack of books and let them turn me into something else. I remember swallowing whole the works of Arthur Ransome, somebody’s tragic First World War memoirs, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, what I think was probably The Castle of Otranto, the Burton translation of the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (I was the only kid in school to know my lingam from someone else’s yoni), Diana Wynne Jones, Biggles,voyages up the Amazon, massive amounts of Verne and a whole raft of others…including I think an entire run of Bunty magazine for girls, which made me feel extremely sympathetic towards girls, seeing as they have to put up with some really boring shite.
Loads of other stuff happened during that time, I got a new younger brother, my familial fortunes tipped further over towards imminent catastrophe and my father delivered the most easily understandable and non-judgmental explanation of homosexuality ever to me after I enquired repeatedly why our neighbour was always accompanied by a different hirsute young man every time he popped over. But that was the year (or so) that I became the me that I have largely stayed, and it was the books that did it, and I have remained grateful to them ever since.
That was nice, I hear you saying, but it really isn’t news that you were a weird kid…we’ve met you, remember?
Well you won’t be expecting a point anytime soon then will you?
Alright then: I am not that old (it’s the mileage) and I know quantities (large quantities) of people half my age and younger who read voraciously, they do this despite power-levelling their Subtlety Rogues, podding noobs in null-sec, writing Princess Mononoke fanfic and screaming “Boom! Headshot!” at swearing Italians in Karkand.
As well as waiting for Beta entry to Guild Wars 2, they’re also waiting for Neil Gaiman to write something new, and they’ll buy it in book form…probably from an actual bookshop. Massive numbers of them, when they aren’t telling everyone how misunderstood they are on Tumblr, also write. They write online, true, and they write Rory/The Doctor slash fiction, but they intend to continue writing and in the manner of these things, some of them will.
Those that will, if asked to express a preference, would probably quite like their eventual biblioprogeny to be in solid book form. So that’s them taken care of, they still love actual papery, cardboardy, leathery books.
So where are the vast multitudes of people who would actually need to have the very concept of a solid book expunged from their minds in order to segue seamlessly into a world of e-lit?
Similarly where are the younger children who have no knowledge at all of “real” books and would thus have very little option but to grow up in the Kindlewinter?
They would probably be about the same age I was when I first crawled into my Bookoon (sorry!) and came out the other side as my own kind of idiot rather than someone else’s.
We’d probably better get them some books.
This is not to trivialise the issues facing the book world. Not so much the rare and antiquarian side, but definitely modern mainstream publishing, and new bookstores both chain and independent are going to have to radically adjust their thinking for the first time in over a hundred years.
However, as long as we can keep “showing” books to people in their material form, they are going to want them…they are quite simply different creatures from e-books, they appeal to totally different parts of the brain and heart. If you don’t believe me, try emailing your other half their next Valentine’s card as against presenting them with a hand-written version…tell me which one works out better for you.
I’ll leave you with a quote:
“Lolz, luv U 2 babez 😉 x x x ” : Simone de Beauvoir [1908-1986]