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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture