I’ve got a copy of the Hobbit on my bookshelf, which was the prize in an art competition when i was twelve. It’s a lovely copy, with Tolkien’s original illustrations, one of my prized possessions. Next to it is a copy of Awakenings by Oliver Sacks. Sacks has the most fantastic writing style, a cohesion of scientific depth and pure storytelling narrative. Tucked into the cover are various cuttings from newspapers about his other books. My shelves are filled with books from airport thrillers to books about trees and psychology textbooks.
Books are beautiful things, with character, personality and idiosyncrasies all of their own. As with a good meal, the pleasure is with the taste, the texture, the surroundings and the company. It’s not all about the meat.
There is no doubt that books are changing. Publishing as we know it, the gateway between people with something to say and people who want to read it, is evolving. Into what, nobody is yet sure. The old days, where messages were defined by the structure of the distribution method, is gone: books, magazines, newspapers, television, videos, radio, all of these things were single channels, differentiated and different. No longer. Radio shows have webcams, tv shows have podcasts, magazines are on your iPad and have video and books have websites and Twitter feeds. The channels are converging.
But a book is not just the physical form: it’s an idea as well. It’s like an album. In the age of digital releases, the album is an abstract concept that refers to the old amount of music you could fit onto a vinyl disk or CD. But the idea of the album as a creative project persists. Maybe because the commercial realities suit it, but nonetheless, the form lives on.
A book is a space in which we tell a story. Be it a sixty page short story or a seven hundred page thesis, books are curated collections of knowledge, a defined story with a start, a middle and an end.
Recently i’ve been getting into audiobooks, listening in the car, and was slightly surprised when i checked out an old Tom Clancy book. The audio book was 38 hours long: that’s a lot of listening (or a lot of reading for that matter), and that’s the point. You wouldn’t get a 38 hour tv show: not even Jack Bauer could stay awake for that long. In an age of ever shorter chunks of knowledge, trimmed and skimmed for busy consumers on the move, the notion of a book as a self indulgently lengthy chunk of entertainment may seem outdated, but it clearly has a place.
I recently completed Rachel Hewitt’s wonderful history of the Ordnance Survey, ‘Map of a Nation’. It’s 404 beautifully written pages, weighing in at nearly a kilo, hardback and illustrated. A book like this has a depth and coherence that you can’t get in a different form. I’m sure you could make a great hour documentary about the subject, you could even write a play about it, but the book is a kind of definitive statement, it’s the kind of ‘master’ story.
I am no idealist or dreamer, indeed, i like to think that i’m more towards the cutting edge of technology and media consumption than many, and i own a fair few digital books and interactive Apps. I’m sure i’ll buy more. But i’m equally sure i’ll continue to buy books. Publishers are getting wiser to the fact that they need to focus on quality. A well made and presented book is going to sell, but a cheaply made and poor quality one may not. Form matters as much as function.
So the book is not dead, and nor do i think it’s dying. It may be evolving. It’s certainly likely to be as much an art form as a practical tool. But evolution is something that you can read about in a book. The book is not dead, it’s just being rewritten.