More on the book, death of

I’ve bought myself a Kindle and forked out a pittance (felt wrong paying so little) for the Howard Jacobson Booker Prize winner. But I can’t bring myself to sit down and read it. I want a book, the sense of a whole book, not a pageless Kindle-screed, in my hand.

35% of US sales in the first week of Jonathan Frantzen’s new novel were e-book, we’re told. How many have read it yet, as opposed to being attracted by its cheapness? Has anyone done the research to find out how they experienced it – how they read it, what they got out of it, how the book and e-book experiences compare? 

E-books of course aren’t so bad. Paper and digital can co-exist at this level. It’s when e-books get enhanced, and the whole book reading experience gets merged with the wider online cheap-knowledge experience that we have to start getting seriously worried.

A few quotes and thoughts from Tom Chatfield’s article in the current (November) Prospect highlight the issues further:

We hear first from a few old-school voices. For Lionel Shriver carefully-crafted novels may be hard to find ‘in a sea of undifferentiated voices’. She’s also ‘concerned that the ‘kind of fruitful professional life as she knows it might be consigned to the past’.  Blake Morrison: ‘Will the craving for interactivity drive books to extinction.’  Philip Pullman: ‘I strongly resent the time it takes.’

Books in digital form, on screen, are suddenly part of a stream of media, so the danger is they’ll lose their identity. So Chatfield argues, and yet it seems he isn’t too concerned, there’s almost an inevitability about where we’re headed.

Apple, Google and Amazon will know what we’re reading, and all those authors who blog and tweet know all about their audiences too. They can write what their audiences want. Don DeLillo: ‘Novels will become user-generated.’ The new digital authors get out there and woo readers, and ensure their output generates mass discussion and consumption. We’re hearing more and more about telling stories, less about novels. Thrillers – ‘the only real genre’ (Lee Child). The novel as potential film script, novelist Julian Gough re-categorising himself as storyteller.

‘In whole fields of research, from politics to academia, the very notion of a book as a static, authored discreet hunk of prose – is starting to seem quaint.’ (Chatfield)

Time pressure: ‘Outside the elemental appeal of stories, many books are ill-equipped to fight their corners.’ The world is becoming increasingly customised, altered to individual specifications.  People will only click to read a novel that fits their own tastes and moods.  ‘This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people, speak, write and read.’

DeLillo again: ‘Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page?

 *

Digital it seems will change the way we read, and that means the way we think. Will we really be left with an undifferentiated world of pseudo-knowledge, with story uppermost and subtlety, critique and analysis sidelined? Chatfield’s analysis is over-egged, he’s bought into digital, doesn’t recognise that there’s a point beyond which digital may yet not go. It may run up against its own natural limitations. Our concern has to be that if and (as we must hope) when it does there is still a book industry – publishers, distributors, bookshops – to support it. And indeed authors worthy of the name.

The idea of story, even thrillers, taking over the earth is pretty horrifying. So too this lazy notion that we will even more than now only buy what matches our tastes and moods. There’s a trap here and the likes of Chatfield are walking right into it, because they rather love the buzz, and want to see what happens. Those of us who love books enough, and the serious business of reading that goes with them, need to start fighting back, and not lying back and let ourselves be steam-rollered.

Remember Philip Pullman’s comment about the time it all takes. Good writing takes time, slack writing doesn’t. Pullman has worldwide following, much of it online. But let them follow. Authors need to lead a different way.

Publishers are doing their best, but they’re covering themselves, trying to point both ways. We need the ‘lay readers’, ordinary people of the book, not publishers, to start fighting back. And we need to do it now. Lose bookshops and it will be much harder.

Let’s not get too alarmist – but there is a death of culture argument here.

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