Have Books Had Their Day?

A fascinating article from Sam Leith on the changes to the books industry post-Internet age:

You won’t find any shortage of people willing to pronounce the printed book doomed, arguing that the convenience and searchability of digital text and the emergence of a Kindle-first generation will render them obsolete.

Frankly (perhaps because I just read fiction on my iPhone and iPad), I’ve never used the searchability options, but I can’t deny that the portability and – in particular – the synching capability of the Kindle app has saved me from some very long and boring train journeys.

So, despite my love of the feel and texture and even the smell of books, I’m a convert to the concept. At least for fiction.

But there are reasons to reject the idea that the extinction of the printed book is just around the corner, just as there were reasons to reject the notion that e-books would never catch on because you couldn’t read them in the bath and, y’know, books are such lovely objects.

They are. I would never jettison all my used books – some of which have been bought as much for the illustrations as the content – for shiny new e-copies, because they mean more to me than just a source of entertainment or learning, but rather a link to my childhood.

In some ways, though, the question of whether we do our reading off paper or plastic is the least interesting one. More interesting is what we’re reading, and the manner in which we do so. A large number of literate westerners spend most of their waking hours at computers, and those computers are connected to the web. The characteristic activity on such a computer has been given the pleasing name “wilfing”, adapted from the acronym WWILF, or “What was I looking for?” You work a bit. You check if it’s your move in Facebook Scrabble. You get an email. You answer it. You get a text. You answer it. Since your phone’s in your hand, you play Angry Birds for five minutes. You work a bit. You go online to check something, get distracted by a link, forget what you were looking for, stumble on a picture of a duck that looks like Hitler, share it on Twitter, rinse and repeat.

Oh, I do identify with that!

Sci-fi author Cory Doctorow has called the internet “an ecosystem of interruption technologies”. TS Eliot’s line “distracted from distraction by distraction” seems apt. Zadie Smith, among other writers, has said that the key to the sustained attention required to create a novel is to work on a computer that isn’t online.

Or perhaps, buy a typewriter?

… it’s fair to wonder what, if anything, it is doing to our heads.

I think we can see what it’s doing to our heads. Studies abound, some foretelling awful visions of dystopia, others looking on the brighter side, as Sam points out:

There are two main schools of thought. One is that modern culture is making us cleverer. In Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson observes that IQ scores in the west are rising, and argues that pop culture – from soaps to video games to the web – is responsible.

Of course, to look at IT in isolation from everything else considered an ‘advance’ (better nutrition, greater freedom, better healthcare) is probably wrong…

In the other corner is Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. He thinks the web is making us more stupid. We surf the shallows in a state of permanent distraction, and concentrate on no single thing for long enough to engage properly with it. Since much of our mental energy is spent processing the medium, little is left for the message.

Now, there’s a man who’s got a Twitter account!

If it really were the case that our attention spans are shortening, you might expect to see a wholesale revival of interest in short stories, or even lyric poems, and a tendency for full-length books to shrink. But we’re not seeing that. Instead we’re seeing Wolf Hall, Fingersmith, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Corrections, Underworld, Infinite Jest, Tree of Smoke, and fat Stephen King after fat Stephen King.

And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

What say you? Are books in their physical format dead?

21 comments for “Have Books Had Their Day?

  1. August 19, 2011 at 9:12 am

    There is something about the printed word on paper – it seems to have a legitimacy somehow, it seems nicer than a screen, as you intimated. Online is far more practical but curled up with a dead tree version is more ultimately rewarding.

  2. August 19, 2011 at 10:03 am

    You’d have to check the habits of the younger generation to see what trend there is there. Personally, I will not be giving up physical books because I far prefer them to reading from a screen, and there will be a market for the foreseeable future, just as there is a market for vinyl records, albeit diminished.

    New technology has obviously had a profound effect on buying habits. I hardly ever buy a book from a bookshop, except for second hand shops. For one thing, they can’t beat the price of online sellers, and for another they don’t stock the things that interest me.

  3. August 19, 2011 at 10:24 am

    I think long term, like a hundred years or so. The printing press is going away. The novel is a printing press form of literature. So it will go away as well.

    • August 19, 2011 at 10:28 am
    • August 19, 2011 at 11:45 am

      This will be no great loss to me. I don’t really see the point of reading stuff somebody made up. Truth is far more interesting, although in the past I have certainly enjoyed novels.

      • August 19, 2011 at 11:46 am

        I’m referring to the novel, not the printing press.

        • August 19, 2011 at 12:34 pm

          Well, I don’t like silly made-up stories myself. But writers like Kafka or Beckett reveal a lot of themselves in their writing and discuss philosophical problems – far more interesting than some twat like Dickens.

          • August 21, 2011 at 4:20 pm

            Yeah, but Kafka and Beckett are hardly contemporary.

  4. Robert Edwards
    August 19, 2011 at 11:04 am

    I could imagine that fiction might well migrate across to the e-book market, but I’d be surprised if serious non-fiction would. I’m no Luddite, but as a non-fiction author, I’d make a few points:

    The issue of copyright looms large – the parallel of illicit file-sharing in the music industry is clear. I realise it’s not feasible at present, but watch that space.

    The ease with which ‘involuntary plagiarism’ is also clear (which is a bigger issue with fiction, I think) as, if the attention span shortens, then so will the memory regarding where one heard that memorable phrase, for example. (“I wish I’d said that!” – “You will, Oscar, you will…”)

    I don’t read much fiction, mind you, but for those who do, I suppose the e-book is a fine idea. I’ll come to it eventually, I suppose, but like others, I agree that the sense of legitimacy of the printed word (excepting the Guardian, of course) carries weight. But this could merely be habit, or cultural conditioning. And habits change.

    And like Julia, I like the heft of books.

    But we’ll see…

    Further, the nature of non-fiction – dip in, dip out, check the endnotes, bibliography, maps, illustrations, etc. – suggests that the e-book is not ideal for that.

    • November 20, 2011 at 6:59 am

      Well, maybe, but the Kindle app allows my e-copy to be on both the iPad and the iPhone, and more than that, if I get five chapters in on the train and then switch to the iPad version at home, it knows how far I’ve got and offers me the option to go there! It’s like magic…

  5. Lord T
    August 19, 2011 at 11:39 am

    The printing press went because we found fifferent ways of doing the same thing. Its not the same as the books themselves.

    As with everything there are advantages of each format. You choose what you want.

    Personally I like real books and avoid anything that can be modified or controlled after I buy it. DRM (spit) I’ll wait for the pirate version.

    Can anyone explain to me how I can order a Kindle version of a book, electronic format, which uses the internet for delivery and it costs more than a paper version which obviously includes physical transport? Makes no sense.

  6. August 19, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    A few reasons why books won’t go away for me at least:
    1) I can read them in a power cut
    2) The words I read in a book yesterday will still be the same tomorrow, they can’t be changed seamlessly
    3) I prefer them as a medium for serious reading
    4) I like books on my bookshelf, I find it easier to browse mark etc.

    I still plan to get a e-reader for stuff I don’t care so much about but…

  7. Sue
    August 19, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I’ve got a kindle and downloaded the whole Game of Throne series. I don’t like using it very much, I don’t know why.

    The whole series arrived from Amazon in paperback last week, much better!

  8. Jeremy Poynton
    August 19, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    All this death of the book twaddle forgets that many older people – I for one – struggle to read blocks of text on a screen. Indeed, if I have an article of a couple of pages on my screen, I will print it to read it. Screens also, like TV, interfere with brain activity – we had to stop my stepdaughter using her PC for 90 mins or so before she went to bed, else she could not get to sleep.

    Ner. Mine’s a book thanks. And always will be.

  9. August 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I love my collection of books. I never leave a carboot sale without an armful of them.
    I don’t have a kindle or any electronic reader and I don’t think I would like one.
    When the technology gets cheaper I might buy something for reading unpublished PDF books off the internet, but as far as proper reading goes, it’s books for me.
    Having said that, I also have a large collection of vinyl

  10. August 19, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    I have a Kindle. It’s a great little thing, it carries a whole load of books and the screen is much less of a strain on the eyes than a computer screen.

    However, it can only work as long as I can recharge it and as long as I can link it to an online bookstore. One good solar flare and pop goes my kindle book collection, while my paper books remain unharmed. If I drop a paper book all that happens is I lose my page. If I drop the Kindle I could lose the whole library. So I won’t be ditching the paper books.

    Kindle is wireless and can be updated remotely, as can most electronic formats, so news items could potentially be changed retrospectively. That is not a comforting thought.

    There is also the science issue. I noticed that when scientific journals went online, most ‘started’ with around 1980 or later. The idle buggers of today don’t want to search in library stacks, they just search a database. So all that work prior to 1980 is now rarely referenced and I’ve even seen papers that have ‘discovered’ things that were reported in papers from the 70s and 60s.

    Putting everything on computer is certainly convenient, but it has a lot of downsides too. Not least that the whole of accumulated human knowledge could, at some point in the future, be eradicated by an EM pulse.

    If you want to get all Atlantis on this, you could imagine that it’s already happened 😉

    • November 20, 2011 at 6:57 am


  11. August 20, 2011 at 9:30 am

    I think there’s room for both. I’ve got a lot of old books on my ebook reader which are easy to track down online and are mostly cheap or free, and without the reader I probably wouldn’t have many of them because they’re out of print and I don’t have the time to trawl second hand book stores. I’ve also got some reference books on it and being able to search for bits of interest is a lot easier. But fiction? I prefer an actual book and if it’s an author who I like enough to want to reread the same book over and over I even prefer hardback to paperback. But then I also buy music both on CD and download and will no doubt do the same for TV. My preferred medium depends on what exactly it is I’m after.

    • November 20, 2011 at 6:57 am

      I think so – there’s quite a few books that I’d love e-copies of, but they haven’t been adapted yet, and I think that’s down to a certain wariness among the publishing houses as to just how this is going to shake out.

  12. November 18, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Having just published my first novel, Beneath a Steel Sky, on Kindle, I feel hypocritical in saying that I still have bookshelves that are bowing with the weight of accumulated and much loved volumes.

    I think electronic will be the future, but for me it’s the smell of old books that’s the great draw.

    • November 20, 2011 at 6:55 am

      Me too 🙂

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