The Future of History

Sunday, 1 September 2013

When is a Book not a Book?

(Don't worry, dedicated followers - there's more on the Cobbe Portrait and Shakespeare's face to come!)

I've just discovered that a Kindle edition of Who Killed William Shakespeare? is now available, even in those parts of the world - such as the United States - where the hardback will not be released for a month or two yet.

It's a slightly odd thought.  You just about get used to the fact that all your long, hard work has resulted in a rather lovely object - a Book - which can be sniffed, handled, written in and stacked on a shelf, and then a sort of virtual edition appears.  A version of your book which (like Schroedinger's cat) simultaneously does and doesn't exist.

There have been a few conversations about Kindle in our household lately, following on from a TV advert which shows children talking about reading their favourite books on a Kindle device.  My considerably better half reached for the Compact Oxford Dictionary:

book n. 1 a a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.  b a literary composition intended for publication (is working on her book) ...

And so on.  In effect, Kim had proven that, according to the first definition, anything on a Kindle device cannot in fact be a 'book'.

This all got me thinking.  I'm ancient enough to remember the days when you saved up and then got the bus to go to a record shop to buy the music of your chosen band on vinyl.

That was rather like purchasing the hardback edition of a book.  It was BIG.  It had a big illustrated cover.  And you cherished it, like a precious first edition.

Then came CDs.  Which were a bit like paperbacks.

Now, downloads.  Cheaper and quicker (cover art is neither here nor there, really), and you store them, thousands of them, on a little pocket device.  You listen at random.  There's no actual collection of albums or CDs - just some sort of enormous digital (i.e. virtual) memory.

Do we appreciate the music as much as we used to?  Do we treasure the tracks?  We certainly don't pore over the album and its cover for hours, admiring the detail, the feel of the thing.  We don't shut ourselves in a room and play our singles over and over.  And we don't have to go to all the trouble of guiding the stylus into position and trying so hard not to scratch the record, or even of assembling a handful of meaningful tunes onto a 'mix-tape' for a friend or lover.

I'm not getting all dewy-eyed and nostalgic.  I just don't feel that music matters as much these days, when we can just download a track in seconds, as it did when we had to go out and buy it and then find somewhere to put it.  After all, whatever is 'virtual' doesn't really exist, does it?  And if it doesn't exist - in the way that an actual book or album exists - then why should we care for it?

Will books go the same way?  Will there be a small but zealous community of hardback enthusiasts (like the music lovers who insist on vinyl) and a far greater community of ebook downloaders who quite like reading but have no sense of the value of the book as an object of desire?

Will we just shuffle ebooks at random, dipping in whenever we see fit, downloading whatever takes our fancy with no real intention of building a library?  Are we in danger of snatching at the odd thing that passes by without any real discrimination - and then adding it to our massive, but largely neglected, collection of virtual stuff?

And what happens when we discover that the infrastructure required to support an internet is no longer sustainable?  Books, it has to be said, are sustainable: forests grow, we pulp a few trees, we have a book, which can then be recycled.  I'm not sure that the devices necessary for downloading and storing ebooks are sustainable in any meaningful sense of the word.

Actually, what most interests me about Kindles and other ebooks is their place in the circularity of history and human progress.  You know that the oldest surviving work of literature - the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which is about 5,000 years old - was written on clay tablets?

Aren't some ebook reading devices known as 'tablets'?

You can trace the course of human progress, and the transformations of our society from 'primitive' to 'civilised', by way of the written record.  Not just what was written, but how it was written.  From clay to papyrus.  Parchment to vellum.  Goose quills to moveable type.  When Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable type printing to Europe, he kickstarted the Reformation.  The arrival of cheap paperbacks spread the printed word still further.

And then came the internet, and a billion voices all talking at once, all writing, all publishing.

That can't go on forever.  It's too costly to sustain.  Kindles might just be the last word in a certain process of development.  It's a revolution every bit as fundamental, in its way, as the Gutenberg press.  But it might be the last of its kind.

We'll all go back to actual books because, while it might be simpler right now to download, the resources necessary to make that sort of thing possible are finite and stretched to breaking point.  The genuine book will return because books have always been here (although we might yet resort to recording our most important stories on 'tablets' again, one day).

But it will also happen because the historical cycle of civilisations strongly suggests that it must.  In the beginning, the ability to read and write was enjoyed by a carefully selected few.  The arrival of Christianity gave a boost to the spread of literacy (under strict control, of course), and monks were employed in the scriptoria of medieval monasteries to copy out the sacred texts.  We've come a long, long way from the painstaking transcription of illuminated manuscripts.  Now anybody can write and publish, and anybody can access one of those publications in seconds on their ebook readers.

History teaches us, though, that civilisations collapse, and the growth of those civilisations follows a fairly predictable pattern, as does their eventual implosion.

So, what I would say to you, dear reader, is this -

Please feel free to purchase and download Who Killed William Shakespeare? (or any other book) on Kindle.  And I hope you enjoy it.

But if you really treasure books, and want one that will last, maybe it would be better to invest in the real copy, rather than the virtual one.

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