Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 7: On Reading One's Own Reviews


Yesterday on the Big Bus of Fun the talk turned to reviews, and specifically the reading of same by the writers under discussion. Long, long ago, when publishers were dependent upon a clippings bureau, or the actions of its regional representatives, to keep track of reviews, writers would have to wait quite some time to read reviews if, in fact, they ever got to read them at all. A bad review might be like a sighting of some mythical creature by 19th century explorers: rumors would eventually reach home concerning the nature of the beast, but specifics would be thin on the ground, and the whole thing could even be discounted as the ravings of a fevered mind. Even when reviews assumed solid form, the wise publisher would probably do some minor pruning of the files before passing them on in order to ensure that the worst offenders were quietly lost, thereby allowing the finely-honed equilibrium of the writer remained undisturbed.

Now, of course, a quick Internet search will bring up everything anyone has ever said about you, good or bad, which, for the writer, is a dismal state of affairs. By and large, writers shouldn’t concern themselves unduly with reviews, just as they shouldn’t go seeking weekly blow-by-blow accounts of their sales figures, which Amazon and some publishers offer as a matter of course. It’s like worrying about meteor strikes, or when the sun might die: there’s not a lot you can do about it either way, so you’re better off just getting along with what you’re supposed to be doing.

Mind you, this was hard-learned behavior on my part. Like most writers, I can recall the specifics of bad reviews from early in my career. My first novel, Every Dead Thing, received a couple of real stinkers, most in the UK, I think. One was from a British Labour party politician, now deceased, who used a quote from the book itself to help drive in the dagger. At one point, someone says to Parker, the private detective at the heart of the book, that he hopes never to see him again. “My sentiments exactly,” wrote our political friend, and that was the end of that.

Two of the worst reviews came from fellow writers, because writers-turned-reviewers have an instinctive understanding of just how to hurt another writer with high-impact criticism. It’s a bit like being mugged by surgeons: their boots naturally find the soft spots. One of those reviews, I now realize, was a hatchet-job designed solely to scupper the career of a young writer who was perceived to be getting too much attention, and remains an example of gracelessness that should be handed to anyone who is considering sharpening a reviewer’s pencil before plunging it mercilessly into the soft, fleshy pulp of a first novel. The other wasn’t as bad, and went for a tone of limp-wristed disdain over outright hostility.

I met the writer of the latter review at a festival in the northwest of England some years later. We were on a panel together, and he circled me in the wary manner of a locust that’s just been dropped into a terrarium with a spider. After the event, once he’d calmed himself with a drink or two, he confessed that he’d been very nervous of meeting me, as he’d written the review based upon the belief that our paths would never cross. (That was an unwise assumption to make since, had he examined the book a little more closely, he’d have noticed that we shared a publisher.) In fact, he went on, the prospect of our meeting had rather spoiled the month preceding the festival, and he’d been unable to enjoy much of anything. I nodded sympathetically, and then pointed out that we’d actually already met once before since the publication of the review in question, although he’d clearly been too drunk to remember.

Something similar happened last year, when I met a writer who immediately confessed to having given The Book of Lost Things – a book that managed to survive the reviewing process almost entirely unscathed by very adverse criticism - a bad notice. He looked a bit sheepish, admitted that he’d been wrong about the book, and hoped that it was all water under the bridge. I had to tell him that I didn’t even know that he had written a bad review and, had he kept his mouth shut, he’d probably have managed to get away with it.

The younger me, I suspect, might well have Googled the review in question at the first available opportunity, just to have something to be annoyed about. Now I know that it doesn’t really matter. I’ll always be curious about the general critical response when I publish a new book, but I’ve become very careful about what I read, and I avoid bad reviews entirely, unless I stumble across one by accident and find myself scanning it before I’m even entirely sure of what I’m doing. Nevertheless, even then my instinct is to turn away before damage can be done.

Look, here’s the thing: writers are plagued by self-doubt, and the ones that are not probably aren’t very good writers. Our tendency is to believe the bad reviews because they are our own self-doubt made manifest, and to ignore or immediately forget the good reviews because we secretly believe that they’re wrong. James Lee Burke once told me that you have to learn to ignore the catcalls and the applause, and he’s right. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that you won’t occasionally lapse, but as a general rule for writers, or anyone who presents creative work for public consumption, it’s a good rule by which to abide.

Time to go. Someone on the bus might be talking about me, and I’ll want to listen in. I’ll bet they’re saying something horrible…

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 6: On Delayed Gratification

To pass the time on Sunday’s veeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrryy extended jaunt through the tornado-battered American Midwest, I was watching the fifth, and final, season of "The Wire." Now before I’m deafened by the cries of those who can’t believe that I haven’t watched it already, let me explain. (And before I go on, let it further be noted, in an only mildly boastful way, that I know David Simon – “How my friend David Simon and I laughed!” “As I said to my friend David Simon…”, etc. – which makes it doubly peculiar.)

Anyway, the reason why I hadn’t yet watched the final season of "The Wire" was because, obviously, I was saving it, and saving it for a very particular occasion, one that I hoped I would recognize what it manifested itself: “In case of emergency, break glass and read Burke or Macdonald, or alternatively watch Season 5 of 'The Wire'.” So Sunday was just such an emergency: a long bus trip, and withdrawal symptoms as a consequence of being unable to read or write. There was nothing for it: I had to break out and watch "The Wire." Only Simon could save me. I now have ten minutes of the penultimate episode left to watch, and then the last. I’ll look at them today as we drive to Minneapolis, and then that will be it: no more Wire.

I consider the fact that I’ve saved the series for so long (almost four years!) something of a strength, to be honest. It suggests that I might be rather good at tantric sex, should I ever choose to indulge in it or, indeed, should I ever find myself with quite that amount of time on my hands. (Sting can do it, but then he doesn’t have a whole lot else to do, really. I’m a busy man. I have places to be…)

But it’s not just DVD box sets that I’ve saved. (You should know that I’ve held on to the final season of "Deadwood" for the same reason.) I also have a couple of Ross Macdonald novels that I’ve yet to read, and Macdonald has influenced me more than just about any other writer, but if I read those books there will be no more, and the closest I’ll get to that experience again will be to go back and reread the earlier books, which isn’t quite the same. On a slightly different level, given that the man remains hale, hearty, and prolific, I’ll often wait for a new James Lee Burke novel to come out before I read the one that’s gone before. I want one in reserve, but there’s also the assurance of knowing that I’m not going to be disappointed. Whatever else happens in the world, Burke, Macdonald or, indeed, David Simon and his fellow conspirators working at the top of their game will not let me down.

Am I alone in this? I do hope not. Tell me, please. In the meantime, I have the final episode of "The Wire" to watch. I feel a tear coming on…

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 5: On "The Reflecting Eye"

So, it’s Day, um, Five (?) on the big bus of fun. We still have a full complement of folk, and physical violence has so far been avoided, although our sweet French videographer is leaving today so we will have nobody to patronize.

Anyway, when this tour was announced I decided to arrange a special limited edition of “The Reflecting Eye,” the Charlie Parker novella that had previously appeared in the NOCTURNES collection but had never been published in hardback. I commissioned artwork, rewrote portions, and arranged for it to be bound by a lovely bookbindery in Maine. The bookstores we visit are just paying me the cost of making it, and they’re keeping all of the profits. It’s a vote of confidence not just in bookstores, but in the beauty and value of the physical object of the book, something that we’ve been coming back to again and again on this tour.

For the final time, I’m no Luddite, and I recognize that the ways in which we read are changing, but the two forms – printed and electronic – have to find a way to co-exist. The question that those of us who care about books in any form have to ask is: will the world be a poorer place without bookstores and, indeed, without easy access to printed books? If the answer is yes – and if it isn’t, well, you’re wrong – then we all have to try to support them as best we can. So… here’s the introduction to the new edition of “The Reflecting Eye,” which can be found in the limited edition.


It’s strange for a writer to have to look back on his younger self and try to remember what he was like at the time. Every book that is written comes to feel like the shedding of a skin, another step in a slow process of what one hopes is growth and improvement, and so the writer that I now am finds it hard to recall the writer I once was, even though less than a decade separates me from the man who wrote “The Reflecting Eye.”

Nevertheless, let’s start with the facts. By 2003 I had written five novels: four featuring the private detective Charlie Parker and one, Bad Men, in which he had only a brief, walk-on part. I think that I was still in something of a state of shock to find myself published at all: while I might have hoped that my first novel, Every Dead Thing, would find a publisher, I did not expect it to do so. It had been rejected so often while I was still in the process of writing it that I had finished it more out of a dogged, pigheaded refusal to abandon it — and, along with it, any hope that I might have had of being a novelist — than an actual belief that someone, somewhere might want to present it to the reading public, and demand money in return.

By the time I published my fifth book, Bad Men, I had begun to think that there might be some small chance of my doing this for the rest of my life, although I still expected the rug to be pulled out from under my feet at any moment, to have my publishers scream “Fraud!” and begin some form of legal action to recover their misplaced advances. (I still feel like this a lot of the time, but I now have a lawyer who assures me that we’ll fight them all the way.)

But even with five books under my belt, I still wasn’t sure what kind of writer I wanted to be. I was reluctant to sign long-term contracts, and similarly reluctant to commit to writing a Parker book every year, even though annually publishing a book featuring a recurring character is probably the best way to ensure bestseller status in the crowded mystery market. (It’s also, incidentally, the best way to stagnate as a writer.) Instead I was drawn to short stories, and to supernatural fiction in particular. The supernatural already played a significant, and increasingly important, role in the Parker novels, and Bad Men was an explicitly supernatural thriller, but I wanted to explore the genre still further. An invitation from the BBC led me to write five supernatural stories to be read on radio, and I enjoyed the experience so much that I continued to write only short fiction for the rest of the year, and those tales became the early foundations of the Nocturnes collection.

In a way, writing those stories allowed me to assess my literary armory. I was able to try on new styles, to experiment with new voices and different forms of narration. Looking back, I see Nocturnes as the point at which I began to discover myself as a writer: the basis for all that has followed, including The Book of Lost Things, the Samuel Johnson books, and the direction that the Parker novels have taken, lies in that collection.

The stories in Nocturnes were bookended by two novellas: “The Cancer Cowboy Rides,” and “The Reflecting Eye,” the latter marking the return of Charlie Parker. I remember one reviewer commenting that the inclusion of the Parker story seemed to indicate a loss of faith on someone’s part, presumably my own. The argument, if I understand it correctly, was that I didn’t believe Nocturnes would bring in readers unless Parker was somehow a part of the collection, which struck me as missing the point entirely. The fact is that I would have been better off had I published “The Reflecting Eye” as a separate volume entirely, as I could then have been confident that fans of the character would have reached into their pockets to buy a new mystery, however brief, in which he featured. Including “The Reflecting Eye” in Nocturnes certainly cost me additional sales, as short stories are generally regarded, not without some justification, as a niche area of publishing.

But by placing “The Reflecting Eye” in Nocturnes I wanted to send out the message that the Parker stories and the supernatural tales were all part of the same universe, that I drew no distinction between the two. This was a particular point of importance for me as I believed that the mystery genre was essentially conservative by nature, and amenable to experimentation in only the narrowest of terms. It disliked the mixing of genres and seemed to reserve a particular hatred for the supernatural, an aversion that had its roots in rationalism, subsequently fertilized by a fundamental misunderstanding not only of that term and its opposite, anti-rationalism, but of the very meaning of the word “mystery,” which has, at its heart, supernatural connotations.

For the same reason, at least one plot point in “The Reflecting Eye” has found its way into my non-mystery novels: the use of mirrors and reflective surfaces as windows into other realms, a device that recurs in The Book of Lost Things and The Infernals. This is the universe of my stories, and it must be consistent in its rules. The idea of an alternative reality existing behind mirrors arose out of one of my childhood memories. In the front room of our home in Dublin there was a mirror without a frame that hung on the wall above the fireplace. Looked at from a certain angle, and especially without the reflection of a person visible, it seemed to me more like a window than a mirror, as though, if I stared at it for long enough, I might glimpse another family living their lives, and other figures passing through a room that resembled our own. From such childhood imaginings are adult nightmares made.

“The Reflecting Eye” also marks the first appearance of a character that would come to be of considerable importance in the Parker novels that followed: the killer known as the Collector. I’m often asked where my villains come from, as they seem to strike even the most hardened of mystery readers as particularly appalling. To this, the honest answer is that I don’t know. Quite often I have no clear picture of the villains when I commence writing my novels. I may sometimes be aware of the shadows that they cast, but their form is uncertain. They are, for want of a better term, creatures of the id, and it is only as I start writing the stories that they find their point of entry into this world. To varying degrees, Pudd in The Killing Kind, Brightwell in The Black Angel, and Herod (and the accompanying figure of the Captain) in The Whisperers all came as something of a surprise to me when they made their first appearances on the page.

I’m not trying to suggest that I’m somehow channeling these entities, or receiving signals from the ether in the manner of those unfortunates who believe that aliens are targeting them with radio waves, and consequently take to wearing hats made from aluminum foil for protection. Stories, and the characters that inhabit them, form themselves in the spaces between writing as much as when writers are at their desks. Raymond Chandler used to say that when he was not writing, he was thinking about writing. It’s also true to say that, even when writers are not thinking about writing, somewhere in their heads the process of writing continues nonetheless.

So it was that the Collector popped into “The Reflecting Eye” somewhat unexpectedly, but it was probably simply the case that he had been standing in the wings since the story’s inception, waiting for his cue to appear. There was something fascinating about him, this man (if man he truly is) who believed himself to be doing the Lord’s work, hunting down those who, by their actions, had forfeited their right to life in this world, and to peace in the next. He has since made two further appearances in my novels, and plays a crucial role in The Wrath of Angels, the book that will appear later this year, but I had no idea that he would become so significant when he first wandered into the overgrown yard of the Grady house, digging for bones in its dirt.

But “The Reflecting Eye,” rewritten slightly for this new edition, is still Charlie Parker’s book, and a significant moment in his own ongoing story. How many chapters that story has left to run, I cannot say, but I want it to continue for as long as possible because I love writing about him, and I don’t want to think of a time when I can no longer view the world through his eyes. He has become too much a part of my life to let him leave it so easily, or so soon.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 4: (Not) Writing on the Bus

Okay, I have to confess to being slightly frustrated by being on the bus and unable to write. Boredom is a relatively unfamiliar concept to a reader: as long as we have a book (and it doesn’t even have to be a terribly good book, although it obviously helps if it is) we can endure a great deal. Similarly, the frustration of being unable to write is not something with which I’m familiar. I can get frustrated WHILE writing, which is a different matter, and I don’t know what writer’s block is (I think that’s different for every writer who suffers from it), but to be prevented from writing by one’s environment (in this case the rolling, seasick-inducing motion of a long bus journey) makes me want to gnaw my arm off. So yesterday was bad as we had about six or seven hours on the bus, divided into two journeys of about two and a half hours and four and a half hours respectively. Today is rather worse, as I’m sitting on the bus just as we’re about to embark on a six and a half hour trip. Goodbye, Buffalo. Hello – eventually – Ohio.

On the other hand, I suppose the tour comes at a pretty good time as far as writing is concerned, if there can ever be a good time to be unable to write. THE WRATH OF ANGELS, the Charlie Parker novel due for publication in September, was delivered in March, and my British editor, who tends to read my manuscripts sooner than my American editor (possibly because she loves me more, although far be it from me to incite my editors to compete for my affections, even if it would be nice if they did), put it straight into production. This means that any queries she had were minor, and could be dealt with after the manuscript had been copy-edited. It’s a bit like submitting your homework to teacher and getting it back without a note ordering you to write out each of your mistakes ten times until you grasp the importance of coherent sentences. Secretly, we all expect to hear the words “The start is good, and the end is good, but pages 12-340 will have to go…”

Meanwhile, by the time I left Dublin some 80 of the essays for the BOOKS TO DIE FOR anthology, in which the world’s finest mystery writers discuss the mystery novels they would add to the canon, and which is also due for publication in September or October, had been received and edited by my co-editor, Declan Burke, and me. Given that the deadline for receiving essays was March 31st (and, in many cases, made a pleasant whizzing noise as it shot past the ears of putative contributors), and the deadline for the submission of the completed manuscript to our publishers is April 30th, it’s just as well that the lion’s share of the work had been done before I departed, but it still leaves only 10 days to edit the late essays, ensure all of the contributor and subject bios are present and correct, and do one final read through to satisfy my control freak urges.

What next? Well, there’s another collaborative project at which I haven’t looked since November, but which I’m now anxious to tackle with a view to letting my editors see it before the summer. Oh, and I’d started writing a short story, more or less to pass the time between submitting THE WRATH OF ANGELS and starting another novel in earnest, but that grew from a short story into a long story, and from a long story into a novella. It’s now on my laptop and needs about three or four thousand words to bring it to a close, but I can’t write them because I’m about to get on the bus again, and I’ve been writing to you instead of finishing the tale that I had to tell.

Hello, bus.

Sigh. I really wish I could write on a bus.

Oh well. Raymond Chandler used to say that when he wasn’t writing, he was thinking about writing. I guess I now just have even more time to think about writing…

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 3: On Recommending Books

My friend Matt didn’t like The Religion. He didn’t like it at all.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Religion, it’s a 2006 novel by Tim Willocks set against the backdrop of the Siege of Malta in 1565. It’s incredibly violent, but it’s also one of the most immersive reading experiences that I’ve had in recent years. I lost myself in The Religion. I even felt a bit like I was living through the Siege of Malta in real time. I would wake up in the morning and read The Religion, wading through mud and filth and gore, then go to bed with the memory of it all still fresh, only to begin the whole thing again the next morning. I actually got to meet Tim Willocks for the first time recently, and I told him how much I’d liked the book. Apparently, the sequel, entitled Twelve Children of Paris, is written, and will be published later this year. Spoiler alert (not): it sounds like it’s going to be pretty violent again.

But Matt, who turned up to say hello at the Mystery Bus tour’s New York stop, didn’t like The Religion. Now Matt may well be wrong about the book – hell, he’s frequently wrong about things, albeit in an interesting way, while I, needless to say, am always right, although I am open to hearing other people explain why they think I might be wrong, if only because I find it amusing – but I felt an unexpected pang of guilt for enthusing about the book to such an extent that he felt obliged to read it, and then persevered with it even though he wasn’t enjoying it.

“But why did you like it?” Matt asked plaintively and, as I tried to explain to him why he was so patently wrong about it, he just looked more and more bewildered, and, I might venture to suggest, even hurt. “Why? Why?” he persisted, and I started to feel a bit as though I’d let him down in some way, rather as if he’d entrusted the care of his houseplants to me while he was away and I’d deliberately let them die, laughing as they wilted on the windowsill.

That’s the difficult thing about recommending books to others. As a writer who is, first and foremost, also a reader, I get asked to recommend books quite often, insight than the norm into the relative quality of various works of literature. But our taste in books is so personal, and so dependent upon factors unique to us – our life experiences, our reading history, even the mood that we happened to be in when we first began reading the book in question – that expecting others to have a similar reaction to a book we ourselves have loved is probably a mistake. They may like it, but equally they may not. Naturally, if they don’t like it they’re wrong, but at least they’ll be wrong in a way that we can understand, if we try.

Still, the rejection by another of a book that we have liked, even loved, brings with it a range of emotions. There will be disappointment that the recipient of our book largesse has failed to appreciate its value, and a sneaking suspicion that we may have entirely misjudged the person in question, leading us to wonder what the hell we were thinking when we started being friends with them in the first place; but there will also be a modicum of guilt, for we, however inadvertently, and with only the best of intentions, have committed that most grievous of book sins: we have forced another person to read a book that did not give them pleasure. We have wasted a little of their valuable store of reading time, for we only have so much time on this earth, and only a limited number of books that we will be able to read in that time. Those of us who love books dearly will die with unread books on our shelves. We may even keep ourselves alive for long enough to finish the book that we are reading on our deathbed, rather like the 19th century reader who was reputed to have clung to life for long enough to read the last installment of the Dickens novel that was being published at the time before finally expiring, presumably content. As we grow older we become increasingly intolerant, even resentful, of books that squander our time and energy. We hear the clock ticking, and the voices of all of the better books on our shelves crying out to be read. For readers, it is not money that is the principal currency, but time. We have to be careful with it, and spend it wisely, for there are too many books, and too few hours to accommodate them.

So I’m sorry that Matt didn’t like The Religion. To make up for it, I’ve promised to find him something that he will like. It’s a task that I’ll take seriously. I’ll think long and hard about it.

And then I’ll buy him the sequel to The Religion.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 2

One thing that travelling by bus offers is time to think, particularly if, like me, you feel distinctly ill if you try to read. Yesterday saw me spending time in two lovely independent bookstores in New York: one was Otto Penzler’s gracious Mysterious Bookshop, where we commenced this little mystery jaunt. The other was Books of Wonder, the specialist children’s bookshop on 18th Street, where I browsed, had coffee, and watched kids read, which rather gladdened my heart. If there is anything more uplifting to the spirit of a reader and writer than being in a room surrounded by books, it is being in a room surrounded by books that children are enjoying.

My heart, it must be said, was in need of some gladdening. Many of you will be aware of the US Justice Department’s lawsuit against five US publishers, essentially accusing them of collusion in setting prices for e-books. The ins and outs of the case aren’t really at issue here, but what troubled me was a comment from an interested party who suggested, not particularly sorrowfully, that the whole affair would be “bad news for bookbinderies.”

Bad news for a lot of people, one fears. Bad news for independent bookstores. Bad news for publishers. Bad news for writers. And, ultimately, bad news for readers, even if, initially, a few dollars may be knocked off the price of e-books. Again, all that remains to be seen. (This is not an anti-Amazon screed, incidentally: I use Amazon as a customer and, as a writer, I benefit from Amazon sales. I suppose, echoing Jack Nicholson, I’m just asking why we can’t all just get along…)

It just seems to me that an element of gloating over the perceived demise of printed books has crept into the discourse over e-books. A year or so ago, a mystery writer was pictured on the front of a magazine warming himself beside a brazier of burning books while sipping a cocktail. The writer in question – for whom, quite frankly, I never had a great deal of time, and that picture just confirmed that my first instincts had been correct – has become something of a proselytizer for e-books, and the magazine cover image, which he apparently suggested, was his way of communicating his message that the printed word was on the way out, and long live the age of the electronic book.

I can think of few more depressing sights in recent years that a writer glorying in the burning of books. Even the Nazis had the decency to make the casting of books on to the pyre look like a bit of a chore. He joins the sorry legion of folk who use terms like “dead tree publishing” and “legacy publishing” to describe the beauty of a book, thereby dismissing everything from the Gutenberg Bible to that beloved, battered paperback that you’ve kept since your childhood, and which would be among the first things you’d try to save if your house was on fire. It’s ignorance on a bewildering scale, and makes one feel that, for a brief instant, you’ve come in touch with the spirit of those chaps who burned the library at Alexandria.

Just to be clear on this: I have no particular problem with e-books. If that’s how you want to read, then fine. Go for it. As long as they’re sold for a fair price, one that represents some reasonable reflection of the effort that went into producing it on the part of the writer and the publisher, then there’s no reason why e-books should not simply be another way to enjoy reading. It should be understood by all, though, that books and e-books are not the same. They can and should co-exist, but there are those – shamefully, writers among them - who would prefer to see the e-book triumph and its perceived competition vanish entirely: first the bookstores, and then the books themselves.

But I don’t want to see bookstores disappear, and not simply because physical bookstores happen to be my preferred way of buying books. I grew up in a house where there were books. Some of them belonged to my grandparents, with whom we shared a house. Some were my mother’s, as my father didn’t read much aside from newspapers. A great many, as the years went on, were mine. I bought them new when I could afford them, or used when money was scarce. Often there would be library books alongside them because, even when I had little money, our local library at Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin offered me the choice of more books than I could ever read in a lifetime.

In other words, I grew up surrounded by books. I saw them before I could read them. I understood that these objects were part of our life as a family. I was curious about them and what they represented. I can still recall my first, faltering steps towards becoming a reader, and the sense that, for this effort, I would be rewarded with an expansion of my consciousness, a new way of experiencing the world, a new way of being.

I suppose I’m wondering now if the metal-and-plastic tablet devices that are set to become so much a part of our lives will offer the same experience. They are not dedicated objects in the way that a book is. A book has one main purpose, which is to be read: an e-reader, outside of the most basic of models, has many. If it’s equipped with internet access then it brings with it, along with certain benefits, the singular curse of that access, which is distraction. The internet is a distraction engine. It encourages us to flick, to scan, to read widely but not deeply. The book function on an iPad or iPhone is, in a way, the antithesis of the other roles for which such devices are equipped. A book’s requirements of patience and immersion from the reader sit uneasily beside Twitter, and Facebook updates, and Google, and the ubiquitous hyperlink.

More to the point, what will the home libraries of the future look like? I suspect this is the last generation that will see significant household libraries of books accumulated on casual basis – by which I mean libraries that have not been gathered as part of a formal collection, or with the potential future financial value of the books in mind - with cluttered shelves mixed with hardbacks and paperbacks. The paperback will soon disappear. The hardback will remain, but will be the preserve of collectors and hardcore fans of particular authors. Ultimately, will there be homes where a library is represented only by a tablet device? Is that really a library at all? If there are households where books, if they exist at all, are essentially virtual and not actual, then how will this impact upon children as they grow up, for surely children’s tastes are formed by their environment? Will the idea of being surrounded by books, whether in childhood or adulthood, ultimately become obsolete?

If that happens, there will be few stores, if any, like Books of Wonder or Mysterious left, or indeed any of the independents or chain stores that this bus tour will visit over the coming week (for now, with Borders gone, Barnes & Noble has come to seem ever more valuable, with its miles of books, and its still astounding range). We will have fewer books around us. The gloaters will have won, but theirs will be a hollow victory, and the world will be a poorer place in which to live.

But maybe I’m wrong. I’m open to being corrected.

I’m just thinking.

That’s what I do on a bus…