THE LAST BOOK
At a moment when publishers and bookshops, and the book itself, look set to go
the way of the dodo, there is irony, and even a certain symmetry, in having
about an 18th
century woman, Rose Mooney, who lived as an
itinerant, blind harper in an era when the harp and the repertoire of ancient
music she played were about to become extinct.
Amazon has just reported that downloads of e-books in the US have eclipsed
sales of paper books, and at Waterstones in the UK, e-books are outselling
hardbacks by four to one. When even writers who yearn to be published, who
adore both hardbacks and paperbacks, are rushing out to buy Kindles, what hope
Don't misunderstand me - I too have fondled those nifty-looking e-readers and
pondered their convenience, but on mulling it over I decided against owning
one, and I am deaf to the argument that Kindle owners still buy paper books
if they find one they really like. Sometimes you have to choose one thing or
another; you just can't have everything.
As a writer, I never expected to live by something so precarious and
self-indulgent as arranging words on paper, no matter how beautiful the
patterns, but if there was little money there was always the promise of
publication, words made solid on the page, beautifully bound in an evocative
cover. For unlike most other creative endeavours, the unpublished novel is a
useless object; you cannot hang it on the wall to soothe the eye, nor sing it
late at night to a few trusted friends, or when everyone has had enough to
drink to treat it with kindness. The written word, especially the manuscript
of a novel, seems incomplete without publication.
So what will happen next? Bookshops will close. Libraries will again become
precious. People who own a Kindle - which would have been more aptly named the
Trojan horse - will leave their readers on a bus and lose their entire library
at a stroke. Secondhand bookshops will thrive. I will still have my favourite
Frustrated writers will acquire handmade papers, sourced from bamboo and hemp,
and produce limited editions of their work. Some, of course, will give up
writing; theyíll take a barista course, because people will never give up
drinking coffee. And while we will always wonder what lustrous words we might
had they not put down their pens in disgust, we will love the way writers pour
their creativity into caffe lattes, macchiatos and cappuccinos; we will follow
them from cafe to cafe as they move about in search of fulfilment.
But wait - what of those limited edition books with their handmade, laid paper
and deckle edges, their lovely fonts? Kindle owners will be miffed at mising
out, because we live in an age where we have to have everything, right? At
first they will buy the books as status symbols; later they will understand, or
perhaps remember, that they love the feel of a real book in their hands.
Slowly, slowly, paper books will return in numbers, publishing will accelerate
again, although Iím not sure I will live to see it.
So what is wrong with electronic publishing? Letís suppose that an original
work can be safeguarded from piracy, that writers won't spend precious years of
their lives labouring over something which will then be stolen, replicated,
altered, flogged for a few pence, or for free, to anyone, anywhere, who can be
bothered to download it. Say that people will pay a proper royalty for the
pleasure of reading. I will still mourn the loss of the book, because books
satisfy the senses; each has its own unique demeanor, scent and weight, while
e-readers all look and feel exactly the same.
Right now I am remembering a night when there was a great storm here in
Adelaide and the trees in the street thrashed wildly until, eventually, the
electricity went off. With all the usual distractions suddenly unavailable, we
lit candles and gathered together in one room, and we read aloud to pass the
time. The children still talk about what a great night it was, and lately I
have been considering organising simulated blackouts. We kid ourselves that
technology is leading us towards the light, but in reality it is leading us
towards a new dark age, and I take no comfort in saying that.
So I am considering setting up a publishing company: Air Books. On certain
days of the week I will read my work aloud in public places. People will be
able to listen to a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter. Working on the theory
that sound and light waves travel, this will be a new kind of publishing, more
like a release of words into the wild. The spoken word, the image of the writer
reading what they have written, will travel to infinity, or at least to places
so distant from our own compromised world that they have not yet even been
mooted as markets.
Finally, will my choosing not to own an e-reader change anything? No, not a
thing; change cannot be halted or even postponed. So why bring it up at all,
why spoil other people's fun? Well, because I may be on board the
but I do not have to dance and sing and drink champagne.
Other musings on the Writing Life ...