E-Bookalypse Now

Whenever someone gets in touch to ask me to do an event, I think of that joke in Father Ted where a TV producer ‘phones our hero to ask if he’ll appear on a religious affairs programme.  “You were the first person we thought of,” says the producer – but on the wall of his office we can see a list of all the other priests he has asked; there are about twenty names on it, all crossed out, and at the bottom, in desperation, someone has added Father Ted Crilly???


Well, Robert Logan, the excellent librarian at Queen Elizabeth’s Community College in Crediton, must have a list of authors with Philip Reeve??? at the bottom, because he asked me to go in yesterday and give a speech before the annual QECC Book Awards: a jolly affair in which six teams of students do a presentation about a recent book and their classmates get to vote for the one they best like the sound of.  I hate making speeches, so I thought I’d tell them Why Book Awards Are Rubbish And Books Are Doomed, in the hope that I won’t get asked to do any more.  Here is a slightly titivated transcript of what I said.

I’ve always been in two minds about the whole idea of book awards.  It seems a pity that the best way we can find of honouring good books is to race them; choosing a bunch to form a shortlist, and then voting to discard all but one of those and declaring it The Winner.  That seems unfair to me.  You can’t really compare one book with another.  The books on most shortlists are all trying to do different things; they probably all have something going for them, they may each mean a lot to someone; and when Book A wins, what does that tell us?  Nothing, really.  The people who like Book B and Book C and Book D are just as moved and inspired by them as other people are by book A.   All we know is that Book A is more popular, and that may just be be because it’s easier, or more obvious, or less challenging.

So book awards are rubbish, let’s all go home.

But wait…  There is one thing I like about book awards.  They do get people talking about  books.  They get people arguing for the books they love.  And I think that’s more and more important.

Some of the books I loved when I was at school were written by Ray Bradbury.  His were some of the first stories I read where I could see that the writing was as important as the storytelling; half the pleasure of them was in the way he used words.  They helped turn me into a writer, and they helped turn me into a science fiction writer, because Ray Bradbury wrote pulp sci-fi adventures full of spindle-shaped silver rocket ships and horror stories as cosy and sinister as Hallowe’en lanterns.  He also wrote a famous novel of the future called Fahrenheit 451.

In the world of Fahrenheit 451 reading is banned.  Books are seen as dangerous.  They set people’s imaginations working, and stories fill their heads with strange and unsettling ideas, so the government has forbidden them.  If the authorities find out that you are a secret reader, the fire brigade is sent round to burn your books – hence the title: 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper ignites (at least, Ray Bradbury thought it was; I think it’s actually 450 degrees Celsius, but there you go, authors don’t know everything, and Celsius 450 isn’t nearly such a good title).  The hero starts out as a fireman, then becomes a secret reader, and at the end of the story he meets a kind of resistance movement, the Book People, each of whom has memorised a whole book in order to keep the stories alive.

Now a lot of people seem to think that the job of a science fiction writer is to predict the future.  It’s not.  A good science fiction story isn’t a window onto tomorrow; it’s a mirror held up to the present day, in which we see a reflection of our own world distorted in ways which might help us to notice things more clearly.  Fahrenheit 451 may be set in the future, but it’s about the 1950s when it was written: a time when people seemed to be turning away from reading to the easier pleasure of television, and when Communism in Eastern Europe and anti-Communism in the US meant that many books really were considered dangerous, and if you were caught reading the wrong ones the authorities could do far worse things to you than just burn your book collection.

But sometimes, almost by accident, science fiction does predict things, and I feel that in a strange way Fahrenheit 451 may be about to come true after all.

Books, you see, are on their way out.  They are obsolete technology.  In a very few years from now, when you want to read a book, you won’t even think about going to a bookshop or library and collecting a bundle of printed sheets of paper.  You’ll just download it from the internet to your Kindle, or your i-phone, or to some far cheaper, easier-to-use bit of kit that hasn’t yet come on the market.  This is not science fiction: it’s happening already; it’s going to happen more and more, and when you have children of your own they will probably look at your books with as much bewilderment as my son feels when he looks at my old vinyl LPs and says, “What are these things?”

In the future we will burn books, not because we think they’re dangerous, but because they have no value at all.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s a problem for me because I like old-fashioned books, and make my living selling them.  But just as, in Fahrenheit 451, books survive in the memories of the Book People, books can survive quite happily as downloaded information on e-reader screens.  They are still the same words; still the same story; nothing that really matters has been lost.

Except, I don’t think many people will want to read novels on screen.  Scrolling through these great chunks of text, 60, 70, 80,000 words long – that doesn’t seem to me to be a very good use of the almost limitless potential of electronic media.  Also, reading a novel requires a type of intense, immersive concentration which is the complete opposite of what we are used to doing on the internet, where we skim lightly through things, following links easily from one subject to another.  I think these new reading devices will not just change the way people read, they’ll change the things people want to read.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.  The novel has had a good innings, and maybe its time new ways of reading evolved.  In the near future I think we’ll see short stories coming back in a big way (which would please Ray Bradbury) but soon I expect to see whole new forms evolve; whole new ways of telling stories; interactive stories, crammed with images and sound effects, incidental music and hypertext links.  Of course, I can’t imagine what these new forms will be, because I’m old and I’m still into books.  That’s your job, and what an extraordinary and exciting new world you’ll live in, where whole new ways of telling stories are waiting to be invented.

But what about the poor old novel?  Well, I don’t believe that novels are going to die out entirely; they just won’t be a form of mass entertainment any more.  They will end up like opera: not many new ones will be written, and only enthusiasts will care about them.  They’ll be available to download, but not many people will bother.

And that is a bad thing, because I do think that novels matter, and writing matters, and the experience of reading a story in this form is different to any other way of experiencing it, because when you’re reading you do so much of the work yourself.  When a writer describes a place or a character the words conjure up pictures in our minds, and for every one of us the pictures will be slightly different.  That’s because we are the ones who make them; the author is just giving us the cues; guiding us through a world which we help to create.  In a film or a painting or a play or a computer game the storyteller gets to show you everything.  In a written story, the imagination of the reader (or listener) is as important as the imagination of the writer.

And that’s why talking about books is important.  When your children or your grandchildren come across your dusty collection of old paperback novels and say “What are these things?” you’ll need to be Book People, and explain to them why they’re worth reading.  They probably won’t come across books in any other way.  There won’t be any bookshops.  There won’t be any libraries.  Why would they download a book to read when they can just as easily download a film or a game or one of these new, interactive, high-tech new forms of storytelling that you lot are going to invent?

So it’s going to be up to you.  The only way that they will get to experience the pleasure of reading a really good book is if you can talk to them about the books you love.

For the record, the QECC Book Award was won by Kevin Brooks’s Killing God, which doesn’t sound controversial at all, oh no.

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