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 written a novel 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 is there?
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 For unlike most other creative endeavours, the unpublished novel is a useless object; you cannot hang it on the wall to soothe the eye, nor sing it late at night to a few trusted friends, or when everyone has had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 books.
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; they'll take a barista course, because people will never give up drinking coffee. And while we will always wonder what lustrous words we might have read 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 I'm not sure I will live to see it.
So what is wrong with electronic publishing? Let's 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 Titanic, but I do not have to dance and sing and drink champagne.