Monday, January 16, 2006

Robert McCrum on the future of the book

Robert McCrum, in yesterday's Observer, provided a thoughtful article on the future of the book. (Link from

I hope it will not seem immodest if I say that the article does not really tell you anything that you won't have read here: in fact as recently as last Monday (see the last two paragraphs of my piece on the Sunday Times). But McCrum is on first-name terms with all the big hitters in publishing, and comes up with direct quotes which neatly encapsulate their thoughts.

For me, the most interesting points are made by Dick Brass and Richard Charkin. Brass is a retired Microsoft Vice-President, with wide experience of e-readers, and he believes that it may take as much as ten to fifteen years to produce an electronic device which provides a reading experience close to that of the book. And Charkin, chief executive of Macmillan and President of the UK Publishers Association, says that he spends four-fifths of his time worrying about technology. He adds that 'none of the big general UK book publishers [Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin] has really embraced the new technology.' Which is another point that has been made here from time to time.

Charkin, by the way, has his own blog, about a month old, and already attracting a large readership. I am flattered to discover that the GOB is one of only two blogs listed in his blogroll. But I'm sure that won't last long.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All journalists are closet novelists, and all a little jealous. When I was a staff writer for the old Canadian Star Weekly, all those women PhD copyeditors would wax so superior and say things like "Norman Mailer would be all right, if he had a little height." The same for our home-grown super-journalist-become-poet, Alan Fotheringham, "You're just a short little, aren'tcha." One journalist actually said that about Fotheringham in print, and I believe there was a lawsuit. Walkin' tall, even if you are 5'4.

Bring it around to someone out over the pond (is he still alive?) John Fowles, writing at about the same time in the late Fifties when people were already saying the novel was dead. Well, he showed them with THE MAGUS, did he not.
Now all the cyberfreaks are saying that the book itself is dead, much as jealous academics were saying abut poor Marshall McLuhan long before he was actually dead, "Marhshall, do your really believe all that rot?" "Stop it," said McLuhan's wife, "You're killing him." They did.
So when people say the book is dead, I'm waiting for the second coming, and I know for sure that it will come. All of McLuhan's success, for example, came from books. All of cyber success came from some obscure early l9th century thesis by George Boole. It's online now. You can read it.
But in the beginning, there was the word. And the word was made microsoft.
Good writing is an interaction between white space on a page and the actual characters. It is almost magic and reading it on a screen changes the process to a kind of data processing alone--all the art and all the magic somehow disappears. Onscreen reading is somehow like explaining logical positivism to someone on Death Row.
Fine if we all agree on objective reality,but in the short run, I will be dead.
The book will stay, much as newspapers have stayed, no matter how many times you can read them on line. As for ads,well, there are ads and there is the kind of near-spam you see on your screen every day.
The next stage in computers is when
they get past the brute O and 1
and move to a more transfinite 2.O.
And guess what will happen then?
We'll go right back to the book, along with the other familiar things that the computer had taken away from us.
It's just a tool, like the analogue device on an Egypian dam
some three thousand year ago, or
l,000 BCE as the yuppie historians would have it.