The End Of Books

Observatory, Reading & Writing

So, which photo appeals more to you? The one on the left or the one on the right?
Recently I did a panel on teen fiction and someone stood up and said ‘You’ve all been talking about bookshops for an hour without anyone once mentioning online buying. I haven’t been in a bookshop in five years, and nor have any of my friends.’ I thought, good point. The Hay Festival is starting to look like a steam traction engine rally, and here we are debating how to keep secondhand bookshops alive while next month, the landscape of publishing will change forever (although it’s worrying that there has been no mention of the online bookstore from Apple UK yet).

The iPad could theoretically make paper books redundant. There are drawbacks; poor daylight reading, the difficulty of propping up the device, battery power and so on – but it’s another alternative that takes us away from carting about paperbacks. Which is why I’m so against the supersizing of ‘Airport Editions’ and paperbacks, and the continuation of fiction hardbacks at all. If paper wants to provide a real alternative it needs to become more portable, not less.

I’ll buy an iPad, and as a reviewer I’m sure I’ll soon be receiving books in this format instead of having to keep dedicated space for zillions of often not-very-good thrillers that get sent to Oxfam or dumped in hospitals. I don’t like reading books on my iPhone because the page size is too broken up, but as I already carry a bag wherever I go, this will be a real alternative.

A bookseller friend told me ‘this is the end. I’m part of the last generation that will see books out in this format.’ I think he’s wrong, because I’ll always want to collect beautiful editions, but who needs ugly-ass Airport Specials? Have you ever replaced a beloved book because you didn’t like the format? I have, many times.

Economics is driving us to choose. Publishers want to sell hardbacks and jumbo books for bigger profits, while electronic formats will continue to shrink sizes for portability. It’s we, the public, who can choose which we prefer through purchasing power.

16 comments on “The End Of Books”

  1. Mary Young says:

    Being a creaky 63, I love buying a book to ‘hold’, but my cloven hoofed grandson would prefer to read a book via the iPad. Perhaps it’s an age thing…perhaps I’m wrong. I’m happy to toddle along to my local bookstore, where time stands still for a little while.

  2. Steve says:

    I don’t know if the iPad’s available in the UK yet, but over here it sold 300,000 units on the first day. Most reviews are quite favorable. I’m personally not ready to trade in my Kindle for one, but I’m sure that many people will, in time. I’ve been reading (real) books avidly for half a century, but I confess to preferring the Kindle’s portability. I’m looking, but I don’t seem to have sprouted hooves yet, cloven or otherwise. Oh, and I’m 58.

  3. Paul Feeney says:

    I have to disagree about the hardback issue, I personally love collecting hardbacks and also paperback sets, I don’t see anything wrong with an electronic format existing alongside these editions but would hate to see it replace them. Perhaps it is a generational thing, I am 34 but have grown up with books, libraries etc. I like the physicality of a hardback, there’s a solidity there which you don’t get with things like the iPad.

  4. Vickie Farrar says:

    I’m not quite a “creaky 63,” but I also prefer reading “real” books. As a routine part of any trip, I seek out local used bookshops for a lengthy browse-fest. And, yes, I too have on occasion replaced an unsatisfactory-appearing book with a more pleassant-appearing or -feeling edition. The prominent decorative “theme” in my home is books….colorfully-filled shelves of them in every room. I refer to them, I re-read them, I add to them. The image of a single iPad replacing all this just doesn’t cut it….

  5. Left, left, left! Though without the need for wellies or umbrella…

  6. Helen Martin says:

    This creaky 68 year-old will probably always prefer books. Yes, I have bought a different edition, usually to get a larger type face and/or more white space. Reading in cars or on buses and skytrain requires clarity of image. I like illustrations and one thing that really suffers in smaller sized editions is the map. I don’t really enjoy the need for a magnifying lens to find the Khyber Pass, the Antonine Wall or the sarcen stone circle. If the map is beautifully designed, very detailed and uses excellent calligraphy it is an insult to reduce it to illegibility.

  7. Gryphon Jackson says:

    Being a thirty something, I couldn’t think of anything worse than to relinquish the sensual feel of an actual tactile paper form book. The iPad is not for this little black sheep of the X generation. most of my friends and family are chomping at the bit to get the latest gadgets (iPad, Kindle etc) while I’m more than happy to curl up into a chair with a good book and a cup of hot choc (during winter) or iced tea (during summer) and just let the world go. I can get lost in bookshops for hours, generally just looking, which often leads to spending more than I should on books. IPad be damned I will always trust and turn to my real editions of reading material.

  8. I like the idea of an iPad, and the look of an iPad. I have to read a lot of screenplays, and it looks ideal for doing that without cluttering up my office with printouts. I like the idea of having access to the complete texts of out-of-copyright books at any time.

    However, I will always be a book fetishist. You can’t open an ebook and find a cryptic, hand-written dedication to someone to whom it was given, someone who has been dead for many years. You can’t sit in the park with a packet of sandwiches and pause just to smell an ebook. You can’t get overexcited describing an ebook to a friend and pull it from a shelf to press into their hand, insisting they must read it instantly.

    The batteries never run out on a book. I’ve got scribbles in the margins of all of my books (and although storing them digitally would make it very convenient to search them, no ebook reader has decent note-taking functionality as far as I’ve seen). You won’t find a box of old ebooks lying around and start reading one just because you like the look of its cover.

    My main concern is that a whole swathe of throwaway literature, pulp literature, the literature that many of us devoured as teenagers will be lost. Someone will always find a way to maintain the out-of-copyright classic, or whatever is currently popular. The lurid covered book that no sane adult would be seen reading is the one that will disappear.

    What concerns me even more is that our charity shops are pulping whatever is donated to them that is not an obviously current and popular book. I think it is a disgrace that it is more widely publicised that if you donate older, battered or pulp books to a charity shop they will become just that: pulp.

    Given how many happy hours I’ve spent browsing charity bookshops it’s a wrench to realise that I cannot donate books to them any more because they just cannot be trusted with them.

  9. Traditional books and electronic formats will be parallel technologies, like TV and movies. TV has not replaced movies and apparently never will. Even radio is healthy. I’m all for the paper book, easily accessible, not dependent on batteries, scannable in a way electronic books never will be, cheaper, portable, viewable even in a very long electric blackout. And the artwork is always better. See my new release by going to my website. I won’t plug it here but I bet you’ll like it.

  10. admin says:

    Nathaniel raises a good point that the losers will be the midlist pulps that won’t get backing in either format, but there will be the easy alternative of electronic publishing via iPad – could that be where the pulps of the future come from?

  11. Allan Lloyd says:

    I’ve been working in an Oxfam bookshop for a couple of years and while it is true that many many books are pulped (earning a few pence for charity) it is fair to say that most of them are complete rubbish. How many copies of Dan Brown or Wilbur Smith should we preserve for posterity? We also have a rule of No Chicklit which has recently been suspended because of popular demand, also teen vampire fiction.

    When I started I was shocked by how many old Penguin and Pan paperbacks were being junked. I put up a fight and got a special section for classic paperbacks, and in the first week a girl came in and bought an armful of green and orange Penguins, over twenty books. My boss is now much more open to collecters pbs, although I still think that our grading is too strict, the plus side being if the books are graded as unsellable I get the chance to rescue them for a small donation.

  12. Alan says:

    A point that Nathaniel implied is the social aspect of real books.

    With my crowd a part of the pleasure we take in visiting each other is to browse bookshelves – what’s this, any good, where from? Then we can sit for hours talking books. Entire new areas of reading crop up this way – my Dad had never heard of Bruce Chatwin, and now enjoys his work. In the same way, we get to laugh at the insights our bookshelves give us on each other. An example of this – and please don’t laugh – a friend came ’round to see some illustrated William Blake books I was gloating about – and spotted several Marian Keyes a few feet down.

    And half my library isn’t mine, most of it is borrowed and the borrowed books fill the gaps left by the lent ones. Sometimes the circle talks about keeping a database on who has what (usually after a few pints) but we never bother, and probably never will. We’re friends – and the book is likely to be somewhere!

    And, what would my flat look like without all these bookshelves? I suppose I could have big TV screens. But TV screens are in no way friendly – and real books, the ones which have been read often, tend to mold in a comfortable “hello again” way to the hands.

  13. Anne Hill Fernie says:

    Can you read them in the bath? What happens if you drop them? Do they have an evocative smell? Do they have the tactile quality of leather and quality paper? Need I go on………??

  14. Alan says:



  15. Trevor Taundry says:

    I used to often go on book crawls with a mate and we used to cover second hand book shops in Coventry and Birmingham. We would get a lot from the erstwhile Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham. Often we would have a book list and return home with twice as much as we found interesting books en route. The feel and the smell of the old books was always an important part of the search. However if we never “progress” we would still be banging the rocks together. The important thing is that people want to read and enjoy reading and there are writers who need to write for those readers.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Strange books keep wandering into my house. I finally was told that my husband finds them in the company lunchroom where someone regularly abandons them. I register them and set them free as bookcrossing books.
    We don’t have the charity bookshops as such, but most thrift shops have a book section where, along with the Reader’s Digest editions, you can find just about anything. At a recent church garage sale I found volumes 1 & 2 of Beginning Latin (don’t ask), Kipling’s Kim, a Zola (Germinale), Dickens, Melville, Herodotus, Thucidides, and Plutarch, all in unused Penguin Classic editions. Someone did not appreciate the liberal education they were being offered. Would I get those in that new format? Of course perhaps I would be better off without them but I doubt it.
    I agree with Trevor that the important thing is that there is material for hungry readers, whatever the format. We survived the shift from scroll to paginated book and we’ll survive this, too.

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