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…