Boyd Tonkin: Meagre fare from the digital kitchen

The Week In Books
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The Independent Culture

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?