Friday, 9 August 2013

The fate of books

It has often struck me that we live in the most literate era there has ever been. The ability to read is a key skill in modern life. Inside the home one can get away with listening to words spoken on the radio and TV, but step outside and one is bombarded with notices, some of them important. You can't travel without needing to read. You can't spot the bargains in shops without the ability to read. It's hardly possible to use a mobile phone or any gadget without the ability to read. You can get only so far by knowing what traffic signs and symbols mean, and recognising the shapes of words like 'Police' and 'Ambulance' and 'London' and 'No entry'. There are not many modern jobs that an illiterate person can do.

The point I'm making is that the practical uses of reading are very many in the the modern world, and anyone who cannot read adequately in their native language will struggle to get by. Given that skill, reading something in a foreign language may be difficult, but you can still have a fair stab at it, at least so long as our familiar roman letters are used.

I for one, if standing in an airport in Poland, Albania, Vietnam or Indonesia, would with confidence be on the lookout for the local equivalents of 'Arrivals', 'Departures', 'Toilets' and so forth, even if deciphering the menu in the airport café were more of a challenge. A basic ability to read is handy with some non-roman scripts too, up to a point. I can cope with Greek and Russian letters. But Arabic writing would take time to analyse, and Chinese and Japanese characters would require a proper language course. Even so, if one can read at all, then nothing that can be written or printed is completely inaccessible, and, given the motivation, anyone can read anything. Which opens up a universe of knowledge and opinion and imagination.

Motivation is however very important. If there is no need to read anything, or indeed nothing to read, then no reading ability is required. The spoken word is enough. Which is what obtains in a basic peasant or hunter or nomad existence.

But I'm drifting away from the thrust of this post. I want to look at the fate of printed books.

My home is full of them, mostly hardbacks except for a fair amount of paperback fiction. the curious thing is that despite the occasional purge (when moving house, usually), the empty shelf space is gradually shrinking. I continue to buy books, and I do wonder why. Let's do a little analysis.

The types of book that I am still buying
Reference books on skills that will never change (such as how to knit, how to speak Italian)
Reference books on natural things (plants, animals, geology, and so on)
Reference books on historical subjects (art, social conditions, engineering feats, war and political events, disasters, etc)
Classic books by a specific author (such as Alfred Wainwright's Lake District Fell guides)

The type of book I do not now buy
Books on anything that is constantly being superseded or updated (such as travel books, or how to use a certain gadget)

You get the picture. I avoid spending money on things that will get out of date and useless. But I still buy books that I can look things up in for years to come, and I still buy some fiction to read for enjoyment.

In my world (and possibly yours too) the Internet has replaced the need to purchase many books that I would once have bought again and again in annual editions, such as pub or restaurant guides. Specifically Wikipedia, a host of trusted websites on this or that, and a handful of apps that supply quick information.

I look things up in Wikipedia all the time, every day. It's up to date, it's in a standard format, it's mentally stimulating, and the information sticks. So I am educating myself. It's also a way of testing my memory, and enhancing that memory with all kinds of knowledge that I did not grasp at the time. Putting it another way, I would never stand firm on some personal recollection, such as 'how it was in the 1970s', as if my experience, from my very small corner, was the definitive last word on the matter.

Access to background information on the Internet that can be explored in depth is a wonderful thing. So is quick access to train times and weather and product reviews and price comparisons. And mobile access is the most wonderful thing of all: stuff downloaded to one's mobile phone or tablet, to read or consult anywhere, even if there is no signal. Or stuff streamed, if a signal is available.

So, given the convenience of phones and tablets, will all printed books die out?

The entire book industry must be wondering about that. Just now they are fostering a nostalgic resistence to the death of books. The beauty of books as lovely objects in themselves is stressed. Well, I'd say there will always be a place for the modern equivalent of sumptuous medieval illuminated manuscripts, and other superior types of book, for civic or ceremonial use. And certain kinds of book do present information in a practical way impossible on a small screen - world atlases, for example; or books that illustrate something in large beautiful plates, full of detail, such as books on plants or animals. The same for books on paintings and art generally. Surely those won't die out.

But as for guide books, cookery books, fashion books, most magazines, and the entire gamut of popular fiction, I think the funeral bell is ringing. For better or worse, I think all of those will go electronic during the next few years, and High Street booksellers will largely disappear. Second-hand booksellers will inherit the earth. They will stock the very books that people like me will still want to buy and pop onto their bookshelves at home. But the rest will have to become websites.

Most electronic books will best be read on some kind of tablet held in the hand. There is something to be said for the feel of a paper book, compared to holding a tablet. Personally I agree that a traditional book is a nicer reading experience, but it has some drawbacks: it's bulky, it gets dogeared and disintegrates, it always needs two hands, and you can't magnify the print. But the screen has drawbacks too: it can get tiring to hold, daylight and reflections can make the words difficult to read, and the consequences of dropping the device from sleepy fingers might be expensive!

Even so, electronic devices of one kind or another will surely take over. It is true that you can carry hundreds of books with you on a tablet. The clincher is that the same device can do so much more. It's also your notebook, your sketchbook, your photo gallery, your music player, your game player, your TV programme catch-up player, your road atlas, your email composer and reader, and your carry-anywhere encyclopedia. And many other things besides. The whole world is already geared up to supplying information and services to you via this flat screen. Thus it will win over the paper book, with its fixed contents, and its pages that flap about and tear in the wind. 

A pity? Well, the historical problem with books is that they were for so long the preserve of a small well-off minority at the top. You could easily argue that no significant social progress was ever possible until inexpensive books became available to the ordinary person. Once that happened, new ideas could circulate and be acted upon. So I'd say that anything that keeps readable information and ideas in circulation is a Good Thing, and tablets can do that better than printed books. And they also preserve the need to have very good reading skills.

In a nutshell: content is always more important than format. But the better format will push out the content to the widest readership.


  1. Got to agree with much of what you say Lucy. Most of the books I own are reference books but even they get superceded. Take my books about astronomy, I have quite a number of those and find some of the facts presented are now out of date but nooks about cookery don't! You never mentioned the world's best selling book which is still being purchased in the thousands every week, The Holy Bible, yet even though I have a copy on the coffee table in front of me I only read it during the daylight hours and use the Internet version at when the light is poor. I love having a book on my knee and losing myself in it's pages. It will be a sad day if they cease to be printed.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. I live in a house full of books from hundreds of years old to weeks old. more than can ever be read in my lifetime but wonder who will want them when we are gone...

    I love my Kindle especially when reading in bed or on holiday but I resent being asked to pay more for something trapped in my device whilst the cheaper but more expensive to produce paper version can be given or lent to friends...

    Nothing can beat the look and feel of a well made book though such things are now rare. As a child I found it impossible to borrow most books from the local library because of the disgusting state they were in after less careful readers had borrowed them, most stank from the rank smell in the houses they had visited with cancerous smoke or smelly cooking...

    There are more and more books I cannot bear to purchase these days because of the way they are made, either the paper and printing is unbearable, sometimes actually unreadable, or more commonly a fat brick like book is published which should be in several volumes but is in one impossible to open comfortably and arm aching to hold open especially in bed.

    If I have a problem with books it is finding those which suit my tastes. I really do not want to read about sex, violence, fantasy or horror and that seems to rule out nearly everything especially Shirley Anne's favourite tome...

  3. Total agreement on the topic it seems. I have a few cherished children's books and it is a collection I intend to add to now that we will soon become grandparents. I hope to infect the little ones with a love of books!


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