Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Final Chapter?

From the Guardian 22 April 2008

Did some Mesopotamian bibliophile gloat as he surveyed his jars filled with clay tablets and discount airily the idea that papyrus scrolls could ever replace the tangible heft and mystery, the sheer durability, usefulness and ease of handling of a fist-sized clay rectangle? I am feeling the same way about the "modern" book.

The late Roman invention of the book as we know it now, the codex of bound pages of papyrus parchment or paper, achieved the pre-electronic apogee of information storage and retrieval. Just think of the tedium of unrolling a scroll to find that one salacious passage you were looking for. The bound book married ease of reading to the aesthetic pleasures of fine bindings and illustrations, not to mention elegant typefaces and layout.

The development of paper and printing made these things available without taking out a subprime mortgage - the Lindisfarne Gospels required a holocaust of 150 calves to provide the vellum even before a monkish scribe had dipped a pen in ink.

Even on paper, books are wonderful things. I breed them in my Catskill farmhouse, or at least I think I hear the pages rustling furtively at night, and there seem to be more of them all the time, necessitating a continuous state of shelf construction. However, the next revolution is in the air.

Initially, the internet did good things for writers both in production and distribution. My first book entailed day after day sifting through dusty library card indexes trawling for material. Now I can sit on my porch next to the river and trawl the internet for appropriate works, and order them online to be delivered within days.

There are more titles published every year than there were through whole eons of history. Huge numbers - veritable forests-worth of paper - are printed, and much more quickly than ever before.

In the old days, typescript would be laboriously edited, set in print, proofread and printed. Nowadays many titles seem to go from author's computer to the printing press without much even in the way of editorial attention.

When you scan the internet, the online sellers offer second-hand copies along with the new, which does not benefit the authors at all. Modern technology still has its upside. In fact, that first book of mine, The Alms Trade, gestated in dusty libraries and went out of print shortly after publication when Rupert Murdoch bought the publisher to get his hands on its Tolkien titles. Since it was selling for anything between $70 and $120 on the internet, a just-in-time publisher, Cosimo Press, recently reprinted it, so that it is now available for $15 in a handsome trade paperback on better quality paper than the original hardback! I even get royalties.

The technology could save the backlist and the mid-list from the vagaries of American publishers who would rather pulp and remainder than warehouse and sell their books. However, I cannot help but wonder if this is a last flicker of the glorious history of print.

I used to get half a dozen newspapers a day. Now I read most of them online. I have the complete couple of dozen volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary next to my desk, but I doubt whether I would ever buy another such large reference book. The CD or online versions are actually easier to use (if you overlook Oxford's clunky anti-copying system.)

Sentiment and aesthetics apart, the big attraction of a book is its portability. You can read it on the plane or train, on the lav or at lunch, or in the bed or the bath without trailing power cables or risking a shocking end to the story.

But the end is nigh. Amazon has just produced the Kindle, the electronic book reader, which, with all its imperfections, would allow me to travel without the suitcase full of books I take now, burning up fuel and costing weight surcharges.

At present they charge far too much for the downloads, which of course will lead to even more piracy. People do not like paying the same price for a rush of electrons as for a tangible object, and while the electronic ink technology is impressive, it is still not as easy on the eyes as the old black fluid on paper.

But it is a sign of things to come, and the auguries get worse. Google is institutionalising the e-book by scanning and hosting the world's libraries. On one level it is a public service, a contribution to scholarship, but this eleemosynary endeavour is at the expense of the world's authors. When a portable electronic book can download any volume from Google's database, will there be any copyright protection for authors?

On the other hand, if they can fix payments, downloads would knock the bottom out of the second-hand market, and maybe for the first time authors could get the equivalent of residuals.

Nevertheless, while watching the brave new world for potential royalty statements, I will continue to cherish my book-covered walls. Somehow, they are a better statement than a Kindle on the coffee table.

1 comment:

Ted said...

Given the digital demolition of the music industry, it is only a matter of time before virtually all media becomes digitized. But it is not all bad - many artists are realizing they don't need the middleman anymore, which means the demise of the reviled agents, and a serious threat to media oligarchs themselves unless they can figure out some new way of doing business. As for the artists themselves, look at what happened to Radiohead!