The Future of Books

“Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn.”

So said Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale – and James Shapiro in a London Review of Books panel discussion on The Future of Books.

“A book” is both an object and a medium, and as the way we read changes, that distinction becomes more apparent. Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where this discussion took place last week, opens his programme blurb “It is my privilege to welcome you to the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2010” and closes “On behalf of the team I am proud to welcome you to the world’s greatest festival of ideas.” Notice the shift from actual to abstract; “Book” becomes “ideas” –  just as the “book” in “e-book” is the text, not the object.

So are physical books “things dying”? Amazon‘s recent announcement that its e-book sales have outstripped hardback sales suggests so. Yet, as another panelist, LRB publisher Nicholas Spice, was keen to point out, the LRB‘s circulation is up on last year, as are profits at Penguin.

The stats are, as ever, contradictory. What’s harder to contest is that more and more people are turning from print to electronic media for news, information and – as Google begin their mission to digitise the world’s books – for literature. If more people read, say, the Guardian online than in newspaper form, then, in a sense, the field has been levelled. has blogs: so do mums, ex-pats and foodies, each with their own niche (cf. my posts on “citizen journalism” and online communities). That’s why people talk about the internet being “democratic”.

But this worries Andrew O’Hagan, novelist and critic also on the panel. The process some call “democratisation” – and O’Hagan calls “amateurisation” – is lowering editorial standards, he argues. It works like this: the literary criticism of non-professionals is less well written and researched than that of professionals; readers get used to it and lower their expectations; professional critics are priced out of their jobs. Perhaps more worrying is O’Hagan’s argument that we readers aren’t just putting up with bad writing, but, by relying on sites like Wikipedia for information, “losing our interest in the provenance of fact.”

Other panelists, too, had evidence of “amateurisation” at work. Shapiro, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and Professor of English at Columbia University, used to teach a book reviewing course that has since been scrapped due to lack of demand. Nowadays, he said, most graduates of the course email him asking for references for their law school applications – not for writing tips. (See the article Death of the Book Review for more.)


So, people are less willing to pay for journalism than they used to be, turning instead to the internet for the free version. But are do they feel the same about books? Is a digital book preferable to a smelly old paperback?

I’m inclined to think e-books won’t replace the physical ones for at least a couple of generations. And that publishers will survive the slow shift from old to new, as long as people are willing to pay for the new. (Those who will suffer are independent bookshops and public libraries.)

I imagine I will see the book newborn and repackaged many times in my life. But I am certain I will never see its death – for a book is not what sits on a bookshelf, but a distillation of life.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on August 26, 2010.

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