Virtual books, virtual brains
In the 1970s I seem to remember (I was in my twenties then, and a revolutionary) radicalised artists deemed paintings and sculpture to be burgeois garbage. They said the canvas was finished. Their aim was to dematerialised the art form utterly.
Something similar is happening to the book in 2014. Umberto Eco said that the book is like the wheel, or the spoon, it cannot be improved... With the rise of Kindle, however, the book is slowly becoming a purely electronic medium and thus, in a bizarre way, it is ceasing to exist. If there were a computer crash in a future society purged of paper books what would happen to our archive of words? It would vanish.
In the 1960s (just to be a nostalgic again) I remember being in my teens and thinking books were for wimps. Then for school I had to read The Bethroted by Italian classic author Alessandro Manzoni. I was overwhelmed. I even picked it up and read it on a Saturday. I remember finishing it, shaking with emotion and thinking, what is this? I didn't think books could do that.
But they can. Physical books make a demand on you. After you've bought them they sit on your shelf and stare back at you with the inference that you're letting them down. If they are electronic, that pressure, that relationship, is gone. You won't have a good book "waiting" for you at home.
The popularity of e-books is an expression of our more complex society. Your computer can do 5,000 things but it won't do something simple. If we could digitalise the knife and fork we'd have done it. That's perhaps what Eco implied with his simile... We cannot digitalise the spoon, right?
Now just to get to a book involves a convoluted electronic process. Instead I can just go to a shelf, pick a book and open a piece of engineering that's unchanged since Gutenberg; it's 500 years old and perfectly designed. The paperback book is a fantastic piece of technology - and it's thought to be not good enough for our world any more.
The proselytisers of the electronic medium talk about how democratic the e-book is. But I've never heard of a democratic system that requires a £130 deposit - the average cost of a Kindle - to take part.
Perhaps I'm being too partisan (or indeed too nostalgic). Bibliophiles like me get very heated about the threat to the art form they love, and I admit there can be a hand-wringing bookworm attitude: my wondrous library of first editions is being threatened! And I can understand why, with its ability to store acres of text, an e-book would appeal to a lawyer or a business leader. I can envisage lots of situations when a Kindle would be handy. But how do you turn the pages when you are up a mountain, just nearing the end of War and Peace and you realise you're about to run out of charge?
Ultimately this is an aesthetic issue: how will the popularity of the e-book affect the experience of reading? There is a casualness and tentativeness about reading on a Kindle that concerns me. I think it might lead to people reading much less, and having a shallower, more superficial relationship with books.
I friend of mine, who teaches a Master's Creative Writing at a local university, explains to me that the most telling lesson about the true status of the e-book comes from his students. If you ask any of them whether they think electronic books are the future they will say yes. But is you ask, "after you've graduated, how would you like to be published, in paper or electronically?" every single one wants to be published in book form. Even for this young generation, completely au fait with iPhones, tablets and Facebook, e-books do not have the same status as paper.
Take Stephen King, for instance. He wants his next book to be available only physically, not as an e-book. Why? I think because the rise of the e-books has meant that anyone who writes is now publishable, which means there's lots of trash out there... and you don't want to mix with trash. Now traditional publishing can be ignored, as new authors sell directly to Amazon - and with no editing, print, warehousing or delivery costs, Amazon can afford to be lazy. There is no filtering, meaning a lot of poorly written and unedited works are available, and these can be detrimental in several ways, not least because they lower the literacy of "virtual" readers: the opposite effect of a good solid well-proofed paper book.
Farenheit 465 anyone?