An academic at my university, Dr Sherman Young, wrote an intriguing book in 2008 called: The book is dead: long live the book (2007). Despite the irony of the work (it’s published as a book), Young offers compelling arguments about the state of the book, claiming, rather audaciously, that the book died sometime in the twentieth century, and that what we call books today are nothing more than ‘anti-books; cynical marketing driven printed objects designed to capitalise on whatever the spin doctors declare is hot.’ Another academic, meanwhile, namely Dr Ian Collinson, one of my honours supervisors at Macquarie, also recently published a book called Everyday Readers (2009) in which he argues for the current state of books as undeniably changed but inevitably significant, and that the most recent deaths of the book is just one of the many that have occurred since the fifteenth century. He writes, ‘Although pessimistic and commentators may shout that the book is over, as they have since the fifteenth century, millions of readers worldwide are no listening to them.’ Prof John Potts, also at Macquarie, wrote an interesting essay called the Book Doomsday: The March of Progress and the Fate of the Book (2010), in which he, similarly to Collinson, argues against the death of the book. While Young’s work is interesting, and his insights into contemporary book publishing acute, he ignores the persistence of classic book reading practices and the cult following of the bookstore- that tangible place that sells tangible works. And, next Saturday, August 11, Australia celebrates National Book Shop Day, to praise the physicality of the book shop. Stores such as Gleebooks and Sappho Books in Glebe, Abbey’s on York Street, and Kinokuniya in The Galleries building on George Street will be holding special events and having discounts and readings to commemorate the day.
On a recent trip to Paris, I had the pleasure of browsing through some great second hand bookstores, including The Red Wheelbarrow, San Francisco Books, Berkeley Books of Paris, La Flâneur des deux Rives, and, of course, Shakespeare and Co., which is chock full of copies of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And while Sydney’s passion for intellectual endeavours is perhaps bleak compared to the rest of the world, there are still great bookshops to be seen and prowl around in. Another blogger wrote up her own list of Sydney’s greatest bookshops, which includes Gould’s Book Arcade in Newtown and Alice and Gertrude in Bondi. The rest of the list can be seen here: http://sydney.concreteplayground.com.au/news/18569/the-ten-best-bookstores-in-sydney.htm.
In Melbourne, on the other hand, my favourite bookstores include Kay Craddock Antiquarian Books, Kill City Crime Books, Basilisk Bookshop (Fitzroy), and Flinders Books, though there are many more great stores, including Paradise Books in Daylesford (outside Melbourne), Readings Carlton and The Paperback Bookshop, among many others.
In a recent yet-to-be-published interview with Gould’s book arcade owner Natalie Gould, the avid book lover talks passionately about how people, children in particular, need to be taught the importance of books. She says: ‘We need to inculcate the love. So you need to have a place where you can do that.’
Owning both an e-reader (a gift from one of my brothers), and fifty-million books (a gross exaggeration), I admit I was hesitant to commit to this new technological artefact, having resisted, without much temptation, Facebook, Twitter and i-phones. Sherman Young discusses the advantages of this new-fangled technology of the e-reader, listing its obvious superiorities to the book; it frees storage space, and it won’t become wrecked if left it the rain or one spills coffee over it. The e-reader, in whatever form, has many great features, enabling its user to upload millions of books without needing to lift much but this thin black pad. On the other hand, having recently downloaded a predominantly unknown work by Bret Easton Ellis, a writer whom myself and my other supervisor are fans of, I realised I would not be able to lend him the work, as I have many of my other books. At times he has lent me over ten books at a time, and from memory he still has my copy of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which I lent to him about two years ago. In fact my copy of Collinson’s Everyday Readers was given to me by the author himself, and I still have several of his works (and he some of my books). Thus the great flaw in e-readers despite their many obvious features is the inability to share e-books. You cannot lend one of the books in your e-library to someone without giving up your whole library. Of course, you could tell someone about a great book you downloaded, though they’d have to go ahead and download it themselves, rather than just taking a book you are not currently reading but have recommended, and reading it at their own leisure. Thinking hypothetically, in the book’s stead, if we only had e-readers, that collective book reading experience, either speaking to others in shops (which I admittedly don’t do since I usually want to be left alone while perusing the shelves), or sharing and lending books we’ve loved, would be impossible, since there would be no tangible object to lend nor a tangible place to wander, defeating the kind gesture of lending and sharing and the experience of wandering.
So while Sherman’s ironic work is interesting and has some insightful ideas on the current state of publishing and pragmatic storage options, I side with Collinson and Potts on the books’ perseverance and physical significance in shaping and producing important reading experiences. It was recently said that the main purpose of the e-reader was to download those works which you were too embarrassed to read on trains or anywhere else in public (Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, and any other commercial sub-par work). In another article it was claimed that sales for the Kama Sutra rose with the advent of the e-reader. Thinking practically, this would not be to everyone’s advantage if, mid-coital, your e-reader’s battery failed. So there are certainly pros and cons on both sides, though while I’ll refrain from kindling my Kindle, I’ll choose real books each time.