A WEEK IN BOOKS
A History of the British Cavalry by The Marquess of Anglesey Leo Cooper, pounds 35.00
Saturday 23 March 1996
The point was the decline of the novel and this was the topic of George Steiner's keynote address. Steiner cited a newly-discovered papyrus from the fifth-century: a critical work predicting that Homer's Odyssey had no future (too long, too repetitive, all those rosy-fingered dawns). But he also bore within him a warning from his Engineering colleagues at Cambridge. They are, he said, very close to inventing a small-scale display unit - a screen that imitates a page, clearly printed. Their units could give you access to all 14 million items in the Library of Congress. You can turn any of its pages at any speed. It's easy to carry, more responsive than any book, and just a few years away.
So what hope for traditional publishing or fiction? The novel has already been written off by none other than VS Naipaul, who said in the Observer last month that it began to flag after 1895. And Gilbert Adair has written of today's novelists being "failures" in comparison to the standards of Stendhal. Steiner added his voice to these distinguished writers, but there was a quiet air of subversion at the conference. Brenda Maddox, the journalist, pointed out that the IT revolution might bring new art forms, but these would take their place alongside novels, film and painting. The clincher came from Matthew Evans of Faber, who forecast that readers would simply print out texts they wanted to read - ie put them back on a page.
So finally we're down to the bottom line - who on earth wants to read books by computer? Only a masochist would sit staring at Sense and Sensibility on PC. The development of taste for literature presupposes the book, and once you have a taste for literature you will want to buy novels, and writers will want to write them.
Steiner fears, of course, that the young will not develop such tastes. But this reminds me of the poet Richard Hugo, who in his last years wrote a poem giving exact instructions for his funeral in the hope that by exaggerating the event he might lessen his fear of it.
The funeral of the novel is far less certain. The safest prediction is that readers will use the witty new technology as an aide-de-camp for novels and art galleries, not as a surrogate. And books will always have one huge advantage over expensive portable technology: nobody will mug you in the subway saying "Hand over the Dickens or else..."
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