Last weekend the Sunday Times reported that one in ten people do not own a single book. This chimes with earlier studies both here and further afield.
The horrified highbrow response was anticipated long ago by the American educational reformer Horace Mann: “A house without books is like a room without windows”.
Surveys also show that households are over-endowed with digital devices. But the shift from analogue to digital devices isn’t necessarily the end of civilisation as we know it. Online and digital activity, unlike TV-viewing, is predicated on literacy.
There is in fact a great deal of continuity of practice across "platforms" over time. Scrolling through content would have been second nature to ancient Egyptians brought up on papyrus (although they would have scrolled sideways rather than downwards).
In classical Rome, notebooks made of pairs of hinged wax tablets were held, not book-style but landscape-style, the way we hold laptops.
But what of the book itself? Will e-reading spell extinction for the bulky, perishable (if my brittle, yellowing 1970s paperbacks are anything to go by), non-interactive codex? Stephanie Duncan of Bloomsbury’s Library Online has argued that the value and joy of reading lies within the book itself, not the wrapper it comes in. So is it farewell folio; goodbye Gutenberg?
It might not be a matter of wholesale substitution.
One possible future is for digital publishing to replace physical books at both ends of the spectrum – as an alternative to the cheap paperback, to be sure, but also an improvement on academic research journals, as well as making rare archival documents more widely available. JSTOR has been an incredible boon for schools, offering resources that otherwise would simply not be available to school students, even allowing for inter-library loans.
The space in between is where the book must find its future.
More books are being produced every year than ever before. The reason for the book’s sustained success lies in what Robert McCrum calls its “brilliant simplicity”. According to Umberto Eco, the book is like the spoon: once invented, it simply cannot be improved.
Handling a well-produced book is a completely different experience than reading a screen. McCrum compares reading a book on-screen with taking wine intravenously. (How does he know?) Research suggests that online text is more distracting, while printed books encourage complete immersion. Books will survive because people value immersive experiences.
Getting to grips with a real book is an aesthetic as well as a literary pleasure. In the middle ground between reading on the run and scanning academic publications, books will retain their omnibus attraction. To quote the title of a novel by Anthony Powell, “Books do furnish a room”.
But book-lovers should not settle too comfortably on the moral high ground. The origin of the book is bound up with egregious adventures in animal exploitation. In the early Middle Ages, the best parchment came from the skins of the youngest animals. The very best quality, ‘uterine vellum’, leaves little to the imagination.
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1
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