Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Embracing the Inevitable

A little over twenty years ago, my ex-wife sat me down and said: “You’re the best friend I ever had, and I wouldn’t still be alive if it wasn’t for you; but now they’ve invented Prozac I don’t need you anymore.”

After printing was invented, it took around a hundred years for the die-hard lovers of manuscripts to accept the inevitable.  I can understand the reluctance: look at the artistry, the patience, the penmanship and the sheer craft of your favourite monk taking three years at very considerable cost to produce your treasured artefact.  Just smell the vellum and the intoxicating aroma of the ink.  Feel the weight of the product adding weight to the words.  Luxuriate in the status conferred by your ownership of such a treasure.

“For hym was levere have at his beddes heed Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed…” (Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenforde)

Yet undoubtedly printing changed the world for the better.  The production and circulation of books was hundreds of times quicker and cheaper.  The education of a much larger number of people became feasible.  Learning was no longer almost exclusively in the hands of the church.  The Renaissance was underway…

Six hundred years on, my house and loft are full of books.  All my literate life I’ve loved and collected them.  Pride of place goes to my limited edition, leather bound facsimile of Shakespeare’s first folio.  It is clad in black and red and I am a clerk of Liverpool…

Yet undoubtedly e-publishing in the digital age has changed the world for the better.  It is a great leap forward, greater even than the invention of the printing press.  Its superiority over former methods of book production is undeniable by all but the most die-hard (and die-soon) lovers of old ways:

- thousands of great books are now free (as well as thousands of lousy ones, and all those in-between);

- you can download any book in minutes and be reading it without moving from your chair;

- any book you download from Amazon is stored in your cloud library and can be downloaded to up to six electronic devices related to the same email address;

- writers who e-publish their books (as I do) at 99p or 99c per copy make as much from the sale of that book as they would from a printed version costing ten times as much.  Great books that took their authors a year to write can now be had for half the price of a cup of coffee on the High Street;

- writers often want to update an edition: add a review, advertise their latest publication, rewrite passages they're no longer happy with...  This can all be achieved in around 12 hours and an updated copy of the book is automatically delivered to the libraries of all previous purchasers.  Nothing is set in stone (or in print) anymore, and what a good thing too;

- your library goes with you wherever you go: hundreds - even thousands - of books;

- you can set the print of any book to the size that suits your eyes – an enormous boon to those of us who would otherwise be squinting at printed pages through a magnifying glass;

- should you come across an unfamiliar word you simply press it to have a dictionary definition come up (making more challenging texts more accessible to eager young readers);

- you can highlight in any one of 4 colours (useful for marking passages for different reasons) and add notes or comments which your reader lists elsewhere for future reference when you’re writing your review, compiling your report or doing your homework;

- you can put the whole of a school curriculum on an iPad or e-reader - saving every school thousands of pounds per year in lost and damaged books;

- you can beam the world’s accumulated knowledge into the most remote corners of the planet - places where regular books are eaten by termites, rotted by high levels of humidity and washed away by floods.

Of course as with any great invention there is reluctance on the part of those who have a vested interest in the previous status quo to embrace the inevitability of it.  Embrace it they must, however, for there is no going back.

So that is why my books are not available in bookshops, and it’s why there won’t BE any bookshops in the fairly near future.  They’ve had their day – centuries of days – and I have loved them for over sixty years…

But I don’t need them anymore.