I’ve spent a lot of the time over the past week taking notes in my own special brand of shorthand (it misses out vowels at random) on the grounds I don’t really trust the recording app on my phone, and I do not possess a Dictaphone. Because my hands aren’t really used to that kind of constant speed-writing pressure anymore, I am pretty sure I can now feel the onset of early arthritis in the thumb and index finger of my right hand.
This being the case, last night I decided to risk it and set my phone with its lupo mini microphone to record ‘The End of Books?’ debate so I could transcribe the highlights this morning.
Didn’t blimmin’ well work, did it. Well, oddly enough it did for the first couple of minutes, where the panel were introduced and everybody laughed uproariously at festival director Nick Barley appearing with a bottle of wine for them – from the reaction on the recording you’d think he was the lost Python. But then it just went to static. Which is pretty annoying.
Essentially author Ewan Morrison was stating the case that the book as a format is dead or dying (he reckons we’ll see the end of paper books within 25 years), Ray Ryan from Cambridge Press was disagreeing (reading a kindle is boring – books do it better than new technology), and The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead was sitting on the fence (kindle is only an intermediate technology and newspapers will go before books do). They all brought up some interesting points, but I found that what they didn’t touch on was more telling in a way.
I think the main issue I had – largely informed by the Bookstart Rhymetime sessions I had to run when I worked for the library service – was that nobody mentioned books for small children. One lady in the audience claimed e-Readers are being used in schools and introduced to five year olds now, which is the first I’ve heard of it, but nobody mentioned early years. Frankly, I don’t see electronic books becoming a suitable alternative for the board book, and I don’t think that child developmental experts are suddenly going to turn around and go “actually, all that stuff about exposing under threes to different textures and reading to them in order to shape their future development was rubbish! Just wait till they’re old enough to hold a kindle without chewing it and they’ll be totally fine.” Equally the picture book seems to be in relatively good health, certainly when I still worked in the library the publishers sent us far more new picture books than probably any other kind. How well do pop-ups really work on an iPad?
A couple of audience members also suggested that the death of the book would be because ‘young people’ prefer to do things electronically but I don’t think that’s true – the youngest person I know with a kindle is in their mid thirties. There is a totally separate issue there perhaps, and quite a well trodden one, that young people aren’t reading as much as they used to/should, but that’s not really about the format – although it could be a bit of a death knell, I suppose. Speaking as a youngish person (26) I have an iPhone which does have a few books on it (all classics which I downloaded for free on the grounds I probably ought to read them – a typical needy consumerist whore) but truthfully I don’t read from it very often because I much prefer the feel of a book in my hands. A book also feels better for my eyes than peering at the screen – we all know you get square eyes if you look at your e-book for too long – and is just nicer in general. I bought five just this week.
Further to that, the main pro of reading off a screen that people mention again and again seems to be print size, which is not something that tends to bother young whippersnappers with their comparatively good vision. Not including myself there, I’m blind without contacts/specs… However, large print books are harder and more expensive to come by than ordinary print, so the fact that with an e-reader you just press a button and get LP is great – but you don’t need that till your eyesight starts to go.
I would also make the point that there is actually room for both e-books and paper books – in the same household, no less. I’ve seen it done by my very own parents. Shocking, isn’t it. But ultimately if you’re a voracious reader I think you’ll consume words either way, probably depending on what is more practical for you at the time. I also think the point made by Ray Ryan about reading essentially being an elite or at least middle class pastime is true – this debate would probably not be of interest in many of the homes of the London rioters.
Still, all of this is sort of by the by, because at no point did anyone on the panel explain what they meant by a book. It might sound a bit silly, but I really think a definition of terms would have been handy. At some points it seemed they were talking about the death of the traditional paper book but at other points it was the book in general; on the grounds that electronic reading encourages dabbling and skimming, essentially making you read in a different way. Several people argued that an e-book doesn’t give you the same immersive experience as a paper book which I think is probably true, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that an e-book is not a book at all.
And isn’t the fact people are reading more and different things because they can download ten electronic books in one go and they want to read them all NOW a good thing? Isn’t it quite positive to have lots of people able to access words cheaper, quicker and easier than ever before; and is it not therefore sort of patronizing to denigrate the e-format as not being a ‘proper’ book?
That being the case you might assume the only reason for shouting about how the end of books is nigh is because the industry is rapidly changing, and people fear change. Of course the panel, consisting of people who make a living out of writing and publishing, are perfectly justified in being worried about the pace of it all. It is harder than ever before for authors to make a living out of writing, as advances decline and people pay less and less for books. But personally I have never ever been under the illusion it would be easy to make a living out of writing; I do it because I love it, and I hope that one day I’ll be making enough to live comfortably on some combination of freelance journalism and fiction rather than temping in other people’s offices. If I don’t get there I can’t envision myself stopping – I’ll just keep putting my silly stories and various opinion pieces on the internet and hoping people like them.
I think the doing lots of bits and pieces model is one a lot of local Scottish writers and poets seem to follow; they tend to have other stuff going on than just publishing their next book, whether they are writing for The Scotsman or running writing workshops or playing in a band or whatever. None of them are J K Rowling, living on a pile of money successful – but they can live comparatively comfortably through their work. I don’t see why the advent of e-books has to destroy that, although it means that the industry needs to think of different ways to operate and I appreciate that is difficult and frightening. However I also think that even as paper books decline, people will look back on them affectionately and probably bring them back at some point, like vinyl or the mullet.
In summary, long live the book – in all its many guises.