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ACS-STAF  January 2005

ACS-STAF January 2005

Subject:

Is it time to bin our books ?

From:

Steve Cavrak <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

ACS staff discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 7 Jan 2005 07:27:39 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (133 lines)

Let’s not get emotional, but it’s time to bin our books
Phil Miller
The Herald (Glasgow)
January 05 2005
http://www.theherald.co.uk/features/30904-print.shtml

Nobody likes being proved wrong. Indeed, for months I had fought with
the idea of owning a digital music player. In a series of heated
conversations with more technologically-savvy friends, I repeatedly
argued that I just did not see the point. "But it's so brilliant, you
can listen to anything you want," one said, to which I replied: "Why
would anyone want to carry around his entire collection of music all
the time?" The answer? "Because you can."

And now I do: I was given an iPod for Christmas and, indeed, it is
fantastic to carry thousands of songs around with you. For a music fan,
it is liberating to be able to listen to whatever you want at any time.

Without doubt, the age of the invisible digital song is here, and
records, tapes and CDs are becoming history. Soon, I wager, following
CDs down the road to oblivion, will be books. Not words, not
literature, poetry, prose or facts – but books.

There will be some upset over this. People are emotional about books.
They are still attached to them: to the feel of the binding, the
calming whisper of the turning pages, the sense of solidity,
familiarity and comfort.

People feel more complete by being surrounded by shelves of dusty
tomes, as if the contents of their educated minds were arranged around
them.

Certainly, reading in itself is not, thankfully, going out of style –
book shops are packed with customers. The market is large and
expanding: there is a brand-new literary festival being launched in
Glasgow tomorrow, called Aye Write!, and the annual summer festival of
books and literature in Edinburgh is a phenomenon.

But I am sure the slightly nostalgic feeling of comfort and familiarity
for books was once felt about vinyl records, or, in the past 20 years,
the CD.
However, vinyl is now only collected by very few people – and vinyl
bores, really, are as tedious as car bores or wine bores. The number of
collectors is bound to dwindle further, while compact discs are being
rendered irrelevant every time somebody downloads a song from the
internet – which they do in their millions. The book will go,
eventually, the same way as the CD is – after all, there are no
bookshelves in Star Trek are there?

To be honest, I will not shed a tear. The book is the medium, not the
message, and as a medium, it is flawed. The message – prose, poetry,
words, literature – will never die as long as civilisation exists.
Indeed, they are essential for our society. But the days of the book
are numbered. For a start, books are highly perishable: they rip, tear,
get drenched, can burn (stacks of books are kindling for many a house
fire), become damp, dusty, mouldy and smell. They also take up far too
much room – shelves and shelves of never-read, once-read, or
seldom-read books glower at you day and night.
They also make moving house – or going on holiday – an ordeal of heavy
lifting. Recently I had to pack hundreds of my late father's books into
tea chests for storage, because I simply did not have enough space in
my flat, or life, for them.

After consigning them to their literary purgatory, I had a recurring
nightmare: the books slowly fossilised in my flat and then turned into
thick gloopy oil, which rose inexorably over my bed and eventually
drowned me. Luckily, none of his books was by Freud. But as box after
box disappeared into storage, I realised I would never, in reality,
have read them again. And how many books do you really re-read, over
and over? Not my dad's 28-volume history of the Boer wars, that's for
certain.

I'm not, of course, suggesting a mass burning of books is in order, a
Fahrenheit 451-style immolation – although if someone could devise a
way of turning books, all those useless unread books, back into trees
the world would be a better place – but gradually reading and
purchasing habits will change. In the near future, the humble book will
be as antiquated as the wax cylinder is now.

Already many young people read more words on the internet than they do
on paper. More books should be available on the net, although thousands
are already. There will be cheap, small, transportable screens which
you can carry in your handbag or pocket, with which you will be able to
access your own personal library. "eBook" reading devices are already
on the market.

Instead of buying a book, you can download and read it with
personal-screen technology. You could swap books with friends with the
simple use of a cable. Technology always fills (and creates) demand –
and people will want easier, simpler, more accessible literature,
prose, poetry and words. It is already happening – personal internet
blogs, set up by music writers, are replicating or supplanting music
magazines in the popular music sphere. The success of Dizzee Rascal,
the rapper who won the Mercury Music Prize, was in part due to being
championed online by esteemed music writers such as Simon Reynolds, a
noted British music writer based in New York.

With iTunes, buying a single song costs 79p. Perhaps buying a single
poem will be the same price. Chapters in books could be bought as you
read them, and authors would circumnavigate publishers (and agents) and
sell their words direct through a digital connection – a la Stephen
King.

Whole libraries could be transferred in seconds, classic after classic
uploaded to computers and hand-held readings screens across the globe.
You could carry the entire works of Shakespeare in your pocket. Or the
entire Harry Potter series, if you really wished. Book charities could
bombard North Korea and other repressive states with digitised literary
spam – perhaps Orwell's 1984 or something by Solzhenitsyn. Schools
could be fed entire libraries down a broadband feed.

Bibliophiles will become as quaint as members the Flat Earth Society
or, perhaps more accurately, real-ale aficionados. After all, owning
books does not make you a wiser, kinder, or more intelligent person: I
have met plenty of people with row after row of books in their house –
who are as ignorant and foolish as anyone who has never read. A large
personal library, in itself, is no guarantee of anything – apart from
some impressive shelving. Reading, however, improves, enriches and
engorges the mind and creates a more educated, cultured society: so the
easier and quickest access there is to the worlds of literature and
thought, the better.

What is plain is that the process of digitising literature should be
speeded up forthwith, in all fields – in educational institutions, in
libraries, in business, on the internet and from book shops. Books will
finally go the way of the dinosaur, although their extinction will not
be so swift and catastrophic. Perhaps, rather like the awe and
incomprehension which the huge saurian bones inspire, we will one day
stare at books and wonder how something so clumsy and inefficient ever
dominated the literary world.

Iain Macwhirter is away.

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