No need for bookshelves, Guy Somerset

New Zealand Listener books and culture editor Guy Somerset tries to be brave about e-books. 

It’s the bookmarks I’ll miss most. At least that’s what I used to think when I was a fervent advocate of the demise of the printed book in favour of the e-book. Printed books I could take or leave – cumbersome, space-consuming and environmentally unfriendly as they were – but bookmarks were another matter. I have over the years – in the form of postcards and bookshop and other giveaways – amassed a large collection of bookmarks, so many that I have pretty much a thematic match for any book I choose to read. Any printed book, that is. E-readers have their own built-in digital bookmarks; they have no need of the large pile of carefully curated items that sits on the bookshelves by the side of my bed. No need for the bookshelves either, of course.

As a books editor, I particularly looked forward to the rise of the e-book for the ease with which it would enable me to conduct my job. No more waiting for books to reach me from Britain or Australia; they could be with me in an instant. No more time-lag between when the books reach me and when they reach reviewers up and down the country; they could be with them in an instant. And without all that time spent packaging them up and couriering them off. Not to mention all the cost and environmental waste of the couriering process. (Aren’t I coming across as an environmentally sensitive soul?)

But, as it happens, I receive remarkably few e-books. Barely any at all. The occasional pdf of a manuscript perhaps. (Anyone who has ever had to grapple with one of these unwieldy items – prone to crush you when you fall asleep reading them in bed – will be instant converts to their conversion to e-book format.) Publishers, you see, are too concerned about digital piracy to release advance copies to such untrustworthy souls as journalists. Or else their publicity departments, and reviewers themselves, aren’t yet geared up for the future.

And rest assured it is the future. As I write this, I am at the Frankfurt Book Fair, reporting on New Zealand’s guest-of-honour programme, and e-books are everywhere: as a topic of discussion (be it the self-publishing phenomenon they have enabled, the intellectual protection problems they have given rise to or the many possibilities of the cloud) and in the form of stand after stand after stand of e-book-related products (from reading devices at one end to helping you create an e-book at the other). Booksellers New Zealand has just announced that the booksellers it represents have got into bed with Kobo so they can sell e-books themselves.

Amidst all this, in one of the German halls of the fair there is a stand where every half-hour the Gutenberg Museum demonstrates a replica of Gutenberg’s printing press. It is heaving with people. I can’t decide if this is indicative of an underlying longing on the part of readers or just horribly ironic. Either way, in years to come, there could well be a

stand displaying examples of the printed book itself, which will come to seem just as historic.

As a books editor (I keep saying that, as though we were a species apart; an endangered species if we are, given what’s happening to the media) … as a books editor, on the whole none of this bothers me, so long as an economic ecology can be found that ensures publishing and a breadth of booksellers continue to be viable.

I have my niggles. The rise of e-book self-publishing makes it more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff on the basis of trusting to the imprimatur of a recognised publishing house and ruling out the shoddy production values of most self-published printed books. In the digital realm, there are few physical differences in quality between the self-published book and those from a publishing house; and nowadays there are even established writers opting to self-publish.

Another niggle is a purely practical one: when I’m emailed an e-book, I am wont to lose it in the torrent of other emails I receive every day. I had one recent e-book (sorry, Penelope Todd) several weeks before it finally rose from the quagmire that is my inbox and got sent out for review. And for all I know it is now languishing in the reviewer’s inbox for the same reason.

But these are things I will learn to work around.

It is as a reader I am having my doubts. As abhorrent as I find the increasing festishisation of the printed book in all those photographs circulating Facebook and Twitter of people’s libraries or the wacky utilisation of printed books as sculptures or whatever, I fear I may be a bit of a fetishist myself.

Recently, I removed the protective cover I’d been using on my iPad so that I could enjoy unencumbered the physical pleasures it presents as an object in its own right: an object perfect in scale and feel; an object that Apple has spent countless millions of dollars designing to that point of perfection. In so doing, I realise now I was taking the first step in what was to be a retreat back to the printed book – the physical book – and a recognition that reading is not just about the information contained within, it’s about the container, too – just as a meal is not just about the nutrients contained within, it’s about the flavours, the company you eat with and the surroundings in which you do so.

A Kobo or Kindle e-reader feels like a badly written sentence: it conveys what it needs to but it gives no pleasure in its own right. An iPad is better – a Ruth Rendell, say, rather than a Dan Brown. But it’s still no Raymond Chandler. And so when I next read Raymond Chandler, it’ll be in the printed form.

I admit I am in a privileged position. As a you-know-what (I won’t say it again), there aren’t many books I have to pay for. And when I do, price becomes a determining factor that may very well see me scuttling off to the Kindle app on my iPad. Because just as a rather ugly coffee table sits in the middle of my lounge rather than the piece of mid 20th-century Danish furniture of my dreams, just as I drive a clapped-out Mazda 626 rather than a Citröen DS, price determines most choices in my life. But it doesn’t alter my ideals. If I won the lottery, things would be very different.

So not a fetishist then, after all. Just an appreciator of style, as we all are to one degree or another, whatever that style may be. If we weren’t, we’d all still be living in a cave – reading off another form of tablet. One of stone.


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