World Book Day special: Print faces a fight for survival

15th February 2013 at 00:00
As World Book Day approaches, we must fight to save the book from cultural ennui and electronic annihilation, A.W. Purdue argues

Written communication has been central to the development of civilisation and culture but few people now put pen to paper. Many pupils can hardly write with a pen, as those of us who have struggled to interpret exam papers know only too well.

The imminent demise of handwriting has serious implications for historians and biographers because much of our understanding of the past depends on the letters and diaries that have been preserved. Emails are, by contrast, innately ephemeral. What must keep publishers awake at night, and should trouble all of us, is the possibility that the printed word may follow the handwritten one into oblivion.

The invention of the Gutenberg press in the mid-15th century, followed by the printing of the first book in English, William Caxton's translation of Raoul Lefevre's The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1475), revolutionised culture and society. Libraries had long been the depositories of human knowledge and creative thought but printing increased enormously the means of extending understanding and the ability to forge new relationships beyond the limits of one's village or town.

Books, and later newspapers and magazines, enabled people to live in wider "imagined communities" - national or continental intellectual societies of those who were like-minded in terms of politics or religion. Most importantly, the explosion of publishing from the 18th century saw the formation of a plethora of publishers, the essential foundation of freedom of speech and thought.

There are many threats to the printed book and indeed to writers. The most obvious is the e-book. Many would argue that were printed books to become obsolete it would not matter. You can read Pride and Prejudice on a screen or in a calfskin-bound volume and you are still reading Jane Austen's words. How much more convenient to have all your books on your Kindle and how much more suitable for those who live amid minimalist decor not to have their lives cluttered by books. Perhaps, indeed, the bibliophile is an outdated nostalgic whose yearning for books is akin to a taste for brown furniture, chintz and wood fires. Perhaps those authorities who want to throw books out of libraries - seeing them merely as centres of information - are correct. After all, if you go to a computer for answers you will usually get precisely what you were looking for. Your search is not distracted by the book next to the one you were seeking, which might have challenged your thinking, even unsettled your convictions.

The message of instant gratification

Yet the e-book, like electronic communication as a whole, may be a cultural cul-de-sac. Philosopher and 1960s media pundit Marshall McLuhan declaimed that "the medium is the message", arguing that the medium of communication shapes and controls human interactions. He was writing before the new electronic media but their development may well have confirmed his argument, albeit in a disturbing way. The message of electronic media could be that all that matters is the instant - and the speed and convenience of delivery. How many e-book users actually assemble libraries on their Kindles, which may contain nothing more than the latest novel?

For authors, the e-book poses problems of copyright and the fear that ownership of their words may go the same way as that of musicians and their songs. Publishers may be comforted, nevertheless, that although the undisputed best-seller of 2012, Fifty Shades of Grey, started on the internet, it made its immense sales - and money - as a printed book.

But as we celebrate World Book Day, books, publishers and authors face further challenges. As the economic crisis drags on, libraries close and book sales decline - heading the same way, some fear, as once-dominant high-street chains such as HMV and Blockbuster.

Legislation, supposedly designed to protect the free market, now enables supermarkets to sell books at low prices. But they tend to stock only books with the popularity and rapid turnover of frozen pizzas. Amazon bypasses the bookshops and Oxfam has replaced the traditional second-hand bookseller. Market forces have led to bigger, but fewer, publishing houses.

The most serious problem, however, is that people are not reading enough. And those who do not find time to read themselves do not make the time to read to their children. Many young people going to school now have little acquaintance not only with books but with the power and beauty of a story.

The idea that the only books schoolchildren need are those "relevant" to their reading level, or the limited experience of their own young lives, means that too often they are provided with thin literary gruel. Yet those same children are able to appreciate the Harry Potter novels and their tales of a schooling utterly different from their own. Films such as those based on C.S. Lewis' Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings exhibit no such condescension.

Like complex films, even difficult books that include advanced language will excite the young if they are imaginative and explore dynamic themes. Unfortunately, too few children are introduced to them.

The printed book has the capacity to survive. Were it to be invented today, how we would admire it. How convenient it would seem - a product that requires no cables or batteries, can be read anywhere and, unlike its technological equivalent, is difficult to damage or destroy. What an asset we would consider the index and references included within its pages.

Our books are also shelved records of our lives, a key to our personalities and tastes; those we had as children and those we were given, lovingly collected and kept throughout our adolescent and adult lives. Let us salute World Book Day.

A.W. Purdue is visiting professor of history at Northumbria University

World Book Day on TESWebchats

What else?

Inspire a love of words and get pupils reading independently with Saints 79's resource pack.


Check out chocolateheaven's thought-provoking list of great reads for key stage 3 and above. You are likely to find something to engage every reader.


Original headline: A Resources special: World Book Day, 7 March - Is the writing on the wall for print?

Photo credit: Alamy


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