Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | August 30, 2008

Is the Book Dead?

Rather like worrying about the end of the world because of environmental degradation, some of those involved in the reading, writing and publishing world worry about the death of the book. Something is definitely going on, and Jonathan Black, author of ‘The Secret History of the World’, who is not-so-secretly really Mark Booth, head of the Random House imprint Century, has written a fascinating and provocative article about this in The Independent. He makes a convincing case for the imminent collapse of the High Street book chains, and for the demise of the printed book. He links all this skilfully to the esoteric tradition and the rise of the internet.

But what I can’t understand about the theory of the imminent collapse of book-reading is why in that case more and more books are published every year – hundreds of thousands of new titles in English alone. And of course Jonathan Black’s book is selling like hotcakes…

Despite my scepticism, have a look at his article – it’s well worth reading. Here’s how it opens. Follow the link to the full article.

The first printed book in the middle of the 15th century illumined human consciousness like no other technological innovation. Knowledge would no longer be available only to a churchy elite. Freedom of thought, freedom of opinion and creative imagination would evade any attempt to control it. If people had once drifted away on clouds of incense, they were now liberated by the smell of ink.

The evidence in 2008, however, suggests that book reading is in decline. I have worked in publishing for some 25 years and have also recently published a book of my own, conscious that it may be one of the last books. I think some people in the business don’t want to admit that it’s happening. To them it seems a betrayal of skills and standards that generations worked hard to maintain. They see apathy, short attention spans, illiteracy – what Auberon Waugh called the “proletarianisation” of Britain.

But to me these signs are pointing the way to a revolution more radical than Caxton’s. The human mind is about to be turned inside out, opening up new dimensions of consciousness to anyone who isn’t determined to keep the door shut.

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Responses

  1. I too feel pretty sceptical about the prediction of the printed book’s supposedly doomed future. I have been reading Roger Deakin’s wonderful ‘Wildwood – A Journey Though Trees’ published by Penguin. I happened to catch the back page advertising Penguin and recounting their admirable beginnings as a company dedicated to producing good quality paperbacks affordable for everyone. I immediately thought of your post and Booth’s predictions. There is a quote from Penguin’s founder Allen Lane:
    ‘We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at low prices, and staked everything on it.’ They go on to say that despite the change in reading habits, ‘we still believe that quality books published passionately and responsibly make the world a better place.’ I am inclined to agree.

    As much as I am fascinated with the web’s connecting power and the value of having such a democratic space to air ideas, I don’t see why some folks see it as necessarily the death nail for the good old, tactile book. Prehaps Booth is a little too obssessed with the ‘Cosmic Mind’ that he writes about. Isn’t this idea just more dualism? A view of the universe that is still relegating our physical selves into an inferior position to the abstract mind? What about the poor old ‘Cosmic Body’ that likes to feel the book in its hands, turn pages, scribble notes in the margin, a body that would get very sore eyes if forced to stare at a screen all the time (or is this just my poor old body?).

    I think that the big High Street book stores are very conservative with their choices, but just look at the success of Amazon. I guess only time will tell. Maybe I am in denial because I love reading so much.

  2. I think there are many reasons for the decline in reading – here’s some of my theories…
    1. Guilt – people feel guilty sitting down and reading when there are chores to do, children to look after ect.
    2. laziness – far easier to sit down and watch a mind numbing film full of special effects which leads nicely on to …
    3. lack of imagination – by being numbed by tv/computer games – imaginations have gone stale and underused – therefore reading becomes boring because people can’t get into the book (through underuse of imagination)
    4. good intentions – buying a book that sounds interesting but never getting/mking the time to read it
    5. no quiet time/space to settle

    The problem is – reading requires a lot of work from the reader and in this age of instant gratification – people can’t be bothered – I really do think that’s what it comes down to – its too much like hard work for a lot of people. But like everything it will have it’s cycle of being unpopular and then hopefully it will reverse again (it better do – or else my dream of getting my poetry published is doooooooomed!) As Maria says – book stores are very conservative as are alot of publishers they have got to take some chances – the sad thing is it all comes back to that most boring yet necessary of things – money!

  3. I blame television. I recognise it in myself, unfortunately. After a hard day at work, how much easier is it to flip through the TV channels and find something acceptable – and some things very good indeed – than to go to the bookshelf, make a decision about what to read – or pick up some half-read book and try to get back into it…

    It’s only a tiny bit easier to use the TV, but in a life of least resistance, it only takes a small slope for the water to flow in a different direction.


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