Boyd Tonkin: Riding, reading and transports of delight

The Week In Books

Historians of technology often stress that the coming of the railways as a means of mass transit did not wipe out the horse-drawn carriage. Quite the opposite. In the rail-networked cities of the 19th century, commuters and shoppers would crowd the horse omnibus to move from and to the stations.

The same went for country and suburban stops, where the patient pony-and-trap would offer an all-hours cab service to arriving trains. Beyond these practicalities, the horse acquired a snob value that only grew as its economic role gradually declined. The private steed now meant, more than ever, luxury and leisure and style. Saddling up became more a jaunt than a chore.

As with riding, so with reading? The advent of the electronic book has already prompted plenty of authors and publishers to cherish the tactile virtues of the printed volume – the Gutenberg codex, if you like – as a physical object. From glossy heavyweight art monographs to collectable series of comely paperbacks, the graspable appeal of the bound book may come to feel like a premium pleasure as its digital sibling grows cheaper and more common.

In fact, new kinds of partnerships – rather than rivalries – look likely to mature. In the case of the virtual and physical book, we can enjoy the equivalent of both the well-sprung, hand-turned chaise and the first-class railroad car at once. We shall see more such joint ventures of the sort that delivered Van Gogh's complete letters both in a top-dollar de luxe print edition (from Thames & Hudson) and entirely free online thanks to an equally state-of-the-art website (courtesy of Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, and thus – ultimately – of the Dutch taxpayer).

More commercially-driven liaisons between large-scale print and online projects will multiply. Suitably enough, the new Oxford Companion to the Book takes on the double shape of things to come. Edited by Michael F Suarez SJ and Henry R Woudhuysen, its two handsome slip-cased volumes (designed with traditional sobriety, although printed in China) retail at a stiff £175. Alternatively, as with other Oxford landmarks of reference publishing (such as the Dictionary of National Biography), a subscription will give you online access to its treasures.

With its 48 expert essays and 5,000-plus articles in a comprehensive A-Z, the Oxford Companion serves up food for endless thought about the past, present and future of the written text, from Sumerian pictograms on clay slabs to the Californian gee-whizzery that now basks in the media spotlight. You won't, of course, find the latest product launches from Messrs Jobs, Bezos or Gates acclaimed in Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G Musto's article on "The Electronic Book". Instead they give a shrewd and sober account of the history of a form that dates back at least as far as Brian Thomas and Philip A Mohr's hypertext extravaganza, If Monks Had Macs..., in 1988. ("It came as 800K diskettes on Macintosh freeware.")

Their essay points out that, since that time, the "essentially nonlinear, multiple medium" of the e-book has been shrunk by the marketplace into a plainer technology that mimics the Gutenberg-style reading experience. In which case, sceptics might now ask, why not stick to a print-on-paper version and relish its tangible treats?

Fine binders, artist-designers, bespoke printers – all should occupy an enlarged niche when the digital page shifts from rarity to ubiquity. Bibliophiliac fetishists may find they have a hand-tooled, watermark-papered, letterpress-printed bonanza in store. And, with their crafty variations on the theme of the printed book, Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's crew have shown that cool dudes too can cherish fancy volumes. E-books will have to match this richness if they hope to stand alone as an artform. But don't hold your breath: after all, many railway "carriages" still echo in their layout the conveyances that came long before the iron horse.

P.S.How happy should readers be that publishers, led by Macmillan US, have started to force e-book retailers to raise prices? Amazon has revised its $9.99 ceiling for the Kindle after a row, while Apple's iPad looks likely to offer titles from its store at rates closer to those publishers seek. Meanwhile, authors have begun to agitate for higher digital royalties, arguing that since e-publishing carries fewer material, storage or transport costs, their cut should be larger. Ian McEwan (left) has already struck a deal for part of his backlist. Yet the digital-rights management built into e-readers means that "buying" an e-book is often more like borrowing it from some vigilant library (and even library books can be discreetly passed on). Many consumers grasp this, and so may expect a price closer to rental than purchase level. These wars have barely begun.

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'