We are all thinking, it seems, about the future of the book. Does the book have a future? I’ve just published two novels as ebooks on the Amazon Kindle website – not because I think ebooks are inherently superior to print books, but because I couldn’t get them into print despite the enthusiastic (and initially optimistic) advocacy of two experienced and respected specialist literary agents.
Alan Yentob’s Imagine last week explored the death of the book, featuring my friend Max Whitby’s innovative digital publication of The Elements, a subject with which Max has long been fascinated.
I feel like I’ve been on a sort of journey in which Max’s shadow has been ever-present, since we met (by phone) when he was a BBC Horizon producer and I was unboxing my very first Mac computer – with no hard drive and the ability to word-process three page documents at a maximum.
In those days I was writing scripts with an electric typewriter and a Rank Xerox photocopier as a cut and paste device. More than 30 years on, I am still using my Mac (an Air in this case, as I lie on my bed with a broken leg) to do the same job it was doing then – type.
Over those years, I developed the Davis Theory of Technology, or DT for short. I noticed that if you landed your Virgin space plane on earth on a visit from a nearby galaxy, you would logically infer a view of earth technology that is the very opposite of the facts.
You would reasonably assume that after years of being enslaved to an information medium that tied up your eyes, and thus your hands, the radio had been invented to supersede television.
You would notice that the primitive written messaging systems around email (and fax before it) with their totally uncertain outcomes, inflexibility of application and proneness to ambiguity that is the written word’s métier, someone had come along with an idea for a live peer-to-peer voice system and called it a telephone. They had also assumed responsibility for technical installation and maintenance, ending the primeval nightmares of d-i-y engineering that come with email.
You would be amazed at the simplicity of the news system delivered to your doorstep that doesn’t expose you to pop-up advertising, scrolling and reload failure and all the rest of it, and can be positioned in front of you at a breakfast table, carried with you into the garden, and used for a variety of domestic purposes once its news currency has expired.
You might finally wander back onto the street and notice someone transporting him or herself on a fuel-free, storable device that accesses all areas and does not destroy the ecosphere – the bicycle.
Then you might wonder what the urban car, the television set and the newspaper are doing on Planet Earth in the 21st century. The truth is that technologies evolve and have only marginal impacts on prior technologies. The book is one of the most fundamental inventions of civilization and is no more likely to disappear under competition from ebooks than is the wheeled vehicle from competition from hovercraft.
It was a box full of Penguin paperbacks brought home from a printers’ works by my father, and with their evocative, intriguing art covers (To The Lighthouse, Death in Venice, The Essential James Joyce ) that reignited my interest in literature when adolescence was doing its best to waylay me. I doubt a Kindle would have had the same effect.
So it’s true that soon no-one packing a suitcase for a trip will make the mistake of including kilos of printed books in place of a Kindle. But nor would anyone who have a room that needs furnishing – a library or workroom ideally – think of furnishing it without books. My furniture now includes my parents’ library – in there is a copy of Ariel, the first Penguin.
Footnote – 2011 was the year I re-read Ulysses, using the same Penguin edition in which I’d first read it when I was 17. That was no small part of the pleasure. I moved on to reread Brideshead Revisited , the same paperback copy as I’d used when doing junior script duties on the Granada Television adaptation in my first job in my early 20s. I’m now looking around my shelves for my next loyal technology survivor.
Strip joint-owner Jack Ruby, the Dallas Mob, the CIA and the assassination of JFK.
Starring Danny Aiello and Sherilyn Fenn.
Directed by John MacKenzie.
Screenplay by Stephen Davis from his play Love Field.
See Ruby at the IMDB
Tommy Lee Jones stars as CIA officer Steve Daley trying to unravel the riddle of high-level KGB defector Yuri Nosenko (Oleg Rudnik).
The real-life espionage case that started a secret war inside the CIA.
Screenplay by Stephen Davis.
View the details for the film at the IMDB