July 12, 2012

The kindle has rapidly become normal. Reading long works of fiction on a flat grey screen, scrolling and clicking towards the next page, has replaced the holding of the book and the flicking of the page. But is this a good thing?

Certainly, the kindle offers a new way of reaching readers who might otherwise not have decided to try a particular work, or may have felt uncomfortable consuming literature in public. The enormous success of E.L. James’ erotic “Fifty Shades” trilogy is a signal example. Readers using kindles can, in certain instances, read things that they would previously have avoided, fearing embarrassment. This is all to the good, even if the books in question are of dubious literary merit.

In any case, there is no sense in posing a dichotomy between “the book” and readers like the kindle. The latter is hardly going away. The book, on the other hand, is being superseded, rendered obsolete. Of course, it too will remain, but aspects of the culture surrounding book usage will not. The bookshop, the library, the reading group, the stacks of books and shelves in homes, the school textbook, publishing companies seeking to produce marketable books as commodities, the designers of sleaves and graphics inside the books, the blurb, the smell, the sound and feel.

None of this is a small loss to society. The invention of the printing press was such an important development in western history because it resulted in huge changes to the way in which people encountered language. The book became ubiquitous, along with the democratisation of fiction and poetry (at a pace inflected, admittedly, by the development of public education systems). Populations in industrialising countries became massive consumers of these items which fitted into the space between two hands, cradled and latent with possibility.

For some, they functioned as an escape. Books, became a miraculous portal to other worlds, and a means of enriching reality through the thoughts and imaginations of others. The book could be shared amongst friendship groups or read aloud for families, contributing to the fusing of individuals within interest groups, the rise of a democratic politics and a scientific culture. The book as commodity replaced the Good Book, the word of God made secular and abundant, reflective of social lives, dynamic, inspirational. The creation of stories became a route to fame and a means of forging newer ways of feeling and acting. The book as a torch with which to guide moral sensibilities, now adrift in an ever more complex capitalist society, provided a means of dealing with, and shaping, change.

The book therefore played a social role as a “thing” distributed throughout society. But the kindle can, of course, do much of this. It is both heir and killer of the book. Texts can be recommended and shared rapidly via the internet, without resort to book dealers (beyond the instant encounter with Amazon).  The quest for the Republic of Letters can, without a doubt, be furthered via the kindle and, while it is easy to imagine that a leader like Mao would have enjoyed zapping his “Red Book” to millions of e-readers without the need to dispatch armies of cyclists across China, the implications are, by and large, progressive. That’s not to gainsay the environmental advantages involved in not producing the paper for conventional books.

And yet. Well, there’s a loss. The bookshop is dying, and that’s a bad thing. It’s a bad thing if you enjoy the ability to browse the spines of thousands of texts, knowing little in advance about the selection on show and driven, by who knows that inside you, to take hold of an obscure novel about rural France and pay £4 that you really can’t spare. It’s a bad thing if you like being in bookshops, with their odd conventions of near-silence, their sense of being separate from the street, the general eccentricity of their staff (who are preternaturally keen to assist, should they be glanced at). In certain shops, there are sensual pleasures to be derived from the sound of the floorboards, the mounting of rickety steps, the smell of aging books, the crisp plop of putting a book back snug on its shelf, unbought, but not forgotten. These things are not minor.

Nor too is the bookness of the book. The cover, being a canvas for skilled designers, which is all too often abused and left either gaudily daubed in offensive tripe, or left blandly branded, with a desultory photograph, the product of a few minutes searching on archival websites. But not always. Indeed, books can be aesthetically spectacular. The combination of great design and the promise of great content works a kind of magic which approaches the pleasure of holding a well-produced vinyl LP. The book itself can be not just a work of literary art, but a work of art full stop. Sadly, the economics of publishing tend towards the production of cheap books, with low budgets for cover art and original design. Worn down by competition from other forms of entertainment and, now, by the migration of fiction into electronic formats, the publishers have been digging their own grave, devaluing their products, losing sight of the magic of the book. They haven’t even had the character to return to the high-kitsch of 1970s thrillers, with half-naked babes sprawled across powerboats whether or not a powerboat featured in the plot at any stage. Sadly, no. But the book remains, by its very nature, a thing worth preserving.

Then there is the intimacy of the act of reading. With e-reading, while the text is there, there is nothing else. It is a two-dimensional space, not easily flung to the floor when startled (or at the wall if frustrated), as a book can be. Not easily cradled either, but kind-of-crabbed in the hands, like a remote control. And with traditional books, the reader interacts directly with the text. If they choose they can underline and comment, they can personalize the book, write endearments to lovers and friends, place the book in time, a token of a life passing and passing a tiny piece of time to another. They can place bookmarks and fold down page corners, mapping the content of the book to aid them in its interpretation. In these ways, they claim ownership of the text, in a way that the e-reader forbids. The e-reader operates at one remove, as an abstraction. Perhaps this results in a loss of intellectual intensity on the part of its human pilot. Perhaps. What seems certain is that e-texts are not going to operate as conduits for emotional intensity, and this is another loss.

Another sacrifice, which many will argue is actually a great gain, is the book as clutter; the book as ersatz wallpaper, clinging to the walls of homes and rendering lives intelligible to strangers even without a word spoken. Books have been a means of creating identity and turning homes into carriers of individualised meanings, without which, what is a home? Great armies of Georgian romances, the collected Thomas Hardy, batteries of Grisham, a mania for Pratchett, a Ulysses and look – it’s barely touched. These signs are not random. For some too, having books around is important. Though surely vulnerable to charges of some form of psychological atavism, the blanket afforded by books is a physical comfort. The collection of portals to alternative worlds, physically interposed between the individual and the outside exerts a very real therapeutic force. Or so it seems to me. Then again, books can encourage the eccentric, and few such oddballs are complete without masses of them around their homes. As I say, for some, these books are needed.

This is not a terminal diagnosis for the book. Far from it. It is just a little note about the value of books, and the presence of magic. We are always in danger of embracing means of neutralising such sorcery in the pursuit of progress or, more aptly, profit, and e-reading risks such a process of disenchantment. But, you could quite sensibly argue, won’t they simply erode the fetishization of the word that books permit? The production of attractive shells for mediocre content, at rareified prices. The seduction of the blurb, the incredible frequency of the “astonishing novel.” Perhaps, but as I say, there are other factors to consider. No-one would stand in the way of cheaper, better literature, nor less environmentally destructive products, or means for authors to self-publish themselves into the stratosphere. But the same people would probably also hate to stand by as the culture of reading continues to collapse – as gathering places for books and book lovers disappear, and they are left with a troubling sense of lightness, where a book should be, but now is just a greyness. Still, a good read nonetheless.


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