Boyd Tonkin: Meagre fare from the digital kitchen

The Week In Books

Predictably enough, the value of book sales in Britain dipped by just under 5 per cent in 2009. The total number of books sold also marginally dropped (down from 332 to 330 million). So far, so recession-standard – but note how small the slide. Yet this week's figures from the Books & Consumers conference do spring a surprise. Books purchased as gifts now account for almost half of the entire market.

For five centuries and more, private reading has counted as the paradigm activity of an individualistic culture. In fact, books serve in a hundred varied ways as links in our social chain. We may give them to honour, to flatter, to boast, to seduce, to delight, to challenge, to proclaim and to persuade. As rotund crimson hardback or chunky cream paperback, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has recently – as every fêted prize-winner will - done duty as a bargaining chip across a spectrum of different relationships among family, friends and lovers. Books, those bywords for solitary insight, braid lives together too.

And the social ecology of reading changes all the time. Everyone assumes, for instance, that the public library is forfeiting its place in British communal life. Government, local and national, plans and funds on the basis of decline. Hold on. The latest batch of statistics reveals that this institution with 12 million regular users saw book issues rise last year: another by-blow of recession, but still a welcome twist.

The swift expansion of book clubs and literary festivals – self-help success stories that bloomed behind the backs of publishers – has enriched the mix. Last week I interviewed Tariq Ali at Aldeburgh's literary festival: a weekend of sold-out events that warmed keen audiences on a brisk North Sea coast and sold piles of books as well. Today, such feasts for the soul mark a routine date in the calendar of any thriving town. Two decades ago, they were an airy-fairy fantasy. No corporate blueprinter or Whitehall masterplannner seeded this abundance. Readers, we did it all ourselves.

In the private and public sectors alike, trend-spotters may often lose the plot. Just now, they can only read, with robotic monotony, from one script about the future: Digital Dream. In this hi-tech utopian epic, boyish Californian wizards ride to the rescue of an ailing, fuddy-duddy business. The goateed gurus brandish magic tablets that save readers from the curse of an ancient artefact that (as it happens) still satisfies around 99 per cent of them.

Gift-giving, reading groups, independent retailing, literary festivals, library browsing: all the shared experiences that books enable still revolve around the physical volume. It functions as a token, as a talisman – as a fetish, if you like. The object itself makes or seals the relationship. E-books, in contrast, currently offer a privatised and isolated model of consumption in which even the wish to share a file might rank as a criminal intent.

This could change with a more flexible architecture of rights and rules. Yet the digital advocates and analysts seldom seem to devote more than a few seconds of their pricey time to the ever-shifting social landscape of the book. Most discussion of publishing's "electronic future" bumps drearily along the intellectual floor. The emperor of e-books may have some fancy gadgets. As yet, he has no serious mind.

To return to the the printed gift: you might, of course, substitute a symbolic for a physical gift. Smart tokens for e-readers could offer access to virtual shelves from a digital library. Human beings, however, still like to exchange things rich both in information and sensation. That scrummily illustrated book of cupcake recipes – to take one bestselling passion now - may yield almost as big a rush of pleasure as the cakes themselves (without the calories). Let them eat bytes on a piddling six-inch screen instead, advise the digerati. Not many of us will. Sociable readers need more tempting recipes for change.

P.S.In the glory days of American capitalism, before China and Wall Street brought it low, US entrepreneurs would swoop on business success around the world and stage a takeover – or, at least, go into partnership. Well, one US giant keeps faith with the past. The global appeal of Scandinavian crime has registered with James Patterson, prolific creator of Alex Cross and other thriller lines. Always an eager collaborator, he has now snapped up a piece of the action. Postcard Killers, co-written by Patterson and Swedish novelist Liza Marklund, comes out in English in August. It features a Swedish reporter ("Dessie Larsson") on the trail of pan-European murderers in tandem with an NYPD cop. Whatever would Stieg Larsson – or, indeed, Lisbeth Salander – have to say about this bid to transfer profit across the Atlantic from a dynamic Euro brand?

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...