Boyd Tonkin: Riding, reading and transports of delight

The Week In Books
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The Independent Culture

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.