On Sunday morning I attended a Perth Writers Festival session discussing the future of printed books in this world of rapid, almost rabid, technological change. I was completely engrossed listening to the panel of Geordie Williamson (chief literary critic of the Australian), James Bradley (novelist), Lev Grossman (novelist) and Angela Meyer (writer, Literary Minded blog) as they contributed a wealth of suggestions and observations. There were a few differences of opinion, but one thing was for certain: change is already upon us, whether we are prepared for it or not.
I came away feeling reasonably positive. James Bradley noted that, as happened with the music industry, the restructuring of the book industry would engender a new wave of creativity. Lev Grossman suggested that the new technologies need not mean the death of the old ones, but rather the advent of something ‘more complex and interesting’. And Angela Meyer proposed that the bookstores who prevail will be the ones who create a culture around themselves, such as the Readings chain in Melbourne (which I’m excited to be visiting for the first time next week). Geordie Williamson observed that we may end up seeing a more diverse industry, akin to the way things operated before conglomerate consolidation.
One question raised was whether the enhanced e-book is a good or bad thing – or indeed if it is possible to authentically translate all books into standard or enhanced e-formats. I loved Lev Grossman’s statement that ‘just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should’ (something that sprang to mind again as I looked longingly at the scones in my local cafe this morning). Geordie Williamson’s related comment, that in our excitement we may begin to see technology as a virtue in itself instead of a tool, also rang bells with me – because my fiction books are written with the aim that I want you to lose yourself in them. I don’t want you to pause to click on words to find out their meaning unless you absolutely have to. I don’t want your e-reader battery life to run out just before the final chapter. I don’t want you to accidentally press the wrong button and find yourself reading a random page. I guess in some ways my novels (and, heaven forbid, me?!) are a little bit old school, so I’m happy I am writing at a time when I can see them in print.
I got home that night and saw on Twitter that the publishers of the Oxford dictionary have conceded there is no point in publishing the printed version any more. From now on it will be online only. I thought of my enormous dictionary in the study, which I frequently don’t bother to haul out, since I can look up a word much faster on the internet. And yet… to flick through page after page of minuscule text and find random words you never knew existed … to be able to feel the English language as a weight in your hands… The loss may not be registered by future generations, but at that moment I began to feel it.
However, on the panel, James Bradley told us that Socrates apparently deplored the coming of the written text as he said we’d no longer have to remember things. It’s a reminder that many fears prove unfounded, and that change, loss and adaptation are part and parcel of life. So while I may get nostalgic for the vanishing worlds of this wonderful business, I’m also looking ahead with optimism and excitement at what may come next, and enjoying being part of it all.