Focus: So many books, so little time

While booksellers are doing roaring business, many much-praised works are destined only for shelving, or showing off on the Tube

BRODIE'S NOTES have always been handy. Students of English Literature have long relied upon the encapsulated plots they provide - topping up for good measure with film adaptations and television serialisations: simply learn the salient quotes, memorise the reason why the author ultimately failed fully to realise his vision, and then move on to the next title.

What the canny student may not be prepared for, though, is the fact that the pressure will not let up once he or she has a scroll of parchment with a ribbon wrapped around it.

True, three-page reading lists stop arriving in the post, but there are still dozens of novels to be read each year in order to keep abreast of Mark Lawson and his guests on BBC2's Late Review.

In fact, the need for a reliable bluffers' guide to new fiction has never been greater, because the book, far from dying its previously advertised gruesome death, has gone on from strength to strength. With the opening of Scotland's biggest book store in Glasgow yesterday, and the announcement earlier in the week of plans to turn Simpson of Piccadilly into a vast Waterstone's, the enduring appeal of the bound and printed page requires no further proof.

Middle-class drawing-rooms may well have made room for a discreet personal computer, but the surrounding bookshelves are still loaded down, not with neat little CD-Roms but with the latest prize-winning fiction.

To mop up the profits created by this demand, bookshops are now styled "destinations", rather like DIY stores, and have cafes and coffee shops attached. The American-owned Borders superstore, housed in the former Littlewood's department store in London, has, for example, four floors, 150,000 titles, 5,000 videos, and sells magazines, music and stuffed focaccia. The planned Piccadilly Waterstone's will have more than 165,000 titles in stock at any moment and the day-old Glasgow branch of Borders has 150,000 on offer.

Big stores and very big investments indeed, but Britain, it seems, is the place for booksellers to be. There are around 100,000 new British titles published every year and the average Briton buys more books per capita than the average American.

WHETHER all these books are ever actually read is another question. Valentine Cunningham, the Oxford University professor of English literature who has just completed a gruelling stint as a Booker Prize judge, has his doubts. "A lot of the ability to digest a large book seems to have gone," he says. " When it comes to books, I think a lot of people now have only a three-day attention span."

The rows of pristine volumes that line many homes are symptoms of what Professor Cunningham describes as "the Christmas book syndrome" - the giving of a weighty and expensive present that will reflect well on both the giver and the recipient. Both acknowledge that the book will for ever remain unread, and both tacitly agree that it is not to be referred to by either party again. It is too heavy for the holiday suitcase, too complex for the disjointed train journey to work. Too bad.

Needless to say, there have always been books that are regarded as essential "consumer durables" and which remain untouched on the shelf: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Bible, Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Civilisation, Tolstoy's War and Peace and, peerlessly, Joyce's Ulysses, to name but a few.

Now there are fresh candidates, a younger generation of bestsellers, each guaranteed to lose its lustre after page one: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. They are all popular titles, none the less, Whitaker Booktrack shows that Midnight's Children has sold 5,473 copies this year, Sophie's World has sold 29,923 in paperback alone, while A Brief History of Time has sold 12,648.

The King James Bible and Ulysses, on the other hand, trail behind with 462 and 3,904 copies respectively. Tolstoy's timeless tale of War and Peace, memorably summed up by the diarist Adrian Mole as "Quite good", is doing a little better with 4,722 sales this year.

If authors want to be read, and not simply bought, it seems they must think small. Beryl Bainbridge and Ian McEwan have certainly cracked the formula with their pocket-sized novels Master Georgie and Amsterdam. And portability, Professor Cunningham believes, is the area where the modern biographer often falls down. He says: "I really don't think many people read all these serious biographies, yet as the novel gets smaller the biography keeps getting bigger. Something like Andrew Motion's book on Keats, which is a lovely book in many ways, or, say, Peter Ackroyd's Thomas More - they are fine as source books, but they are pretty hard going."

The popular fad for scientific literature can also lead even the most ardent reader into something of a cul-de-sac - "I don't know, I seem to have bought about 15 of these books about maths or physics, yet as soon as I get to the first graph, I give up," Professor Cunningham confesses.

SO WHAT is all this book-buying about? The beautiful jacket design and the scent of freshly-cut paper have undoubted allure, yet the book is seductive not only as tangible artefact but because of the intellectual hinterland it suggests. Arundhati Roy and Pat Barker, those sirens of the hardback hustle, promise their readers entry into a realm that will broaden their horizons, plumb unsuspected depths and also impress the person sitting opposite them on the Underground.

According to Roger Katz, general manager of the 200-year-old London bookshop Hatchards, the healthy trade in books reveals a social trend. The nature of book-reading itself has changed. "People are now reading publicly and not privately; that is to say, they are reading on the beach and on the train rather than at home curled up in front of the fire."

As a result Mr Katz detects an increasing interest in the appearance of a book. "Two-thirds of all readers are women and, with women's greater interest in the way they look, this dictates the kind of books which sell. They want something with a strong narrative that will reflect well on them."

Observing customers in Hatchards, Mr Katz has also spotted the aspirational purchase. "This accounts for much of the high sales of cookery books and of travel guides," he says. "Often people buy a travel guide to somewhere they will never actually go to, or they read a complicated cookery book in bed. It is escapism."

So buoyant is the market that Hatchards is happy to make room for the new neighbouring megastores. They will draw book-buyers into the West End, Mr Katz believes. A spokeswoman for Borders agrees that there is plenty of business around for all concerned. Even the burgeoning world of Internet commerce holds no threat.

"We are confident that people will always want to come into a bookshop and browse," she said. "We look at Internet book sales as complementary. They are for people who already have an idea which title they are looking for."

Amazon, the leading on-line bookseller, has no reason to worry about the new breed of megastore either. Last week they reported a 306 per cent surge in revenue to $154m for the last quarter.

Analysts have pointed out that while 60 million Americans already have Internet access, in Britain the figure is only 4.5 million. With revenues like that, though, Amazon can easily afford to wait until the next millennium for more British readers to log on and order copies of Moby Dick, The State We're In, A Suitable Boy or Don de Lillo's Underworld, which will for ever remain unthumbed.

UNREAD CLASSICS

Das Kapital by Karl Marx, 1877. Meet surplus value and his brother, relative surplus value; 900 pages that have dominated student unions for over 100 years.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, 1963. A tour d'horizon in which pollution is examined over 17 chapters.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, 1776-88. Gibbon wrote six huge volumes - some readers would have preferred fewer.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, 1988. Booker prize-winner: over 500 pages we learn of Oscar's childhood and tragic friendship with a drinker/gambler.

Citizens by Simon Scharma, 1991. Enjoyed cult status among intellectuals; less intellectual folk might have made do with 'A Tale of Two Cities'.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, 1988. Grates a bit; companion books make his points clearer.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, 1913-27. We learn about enigmatic Albertine and her opaque sexuality - in fact everyone's opaque sexuality.

Ulysses by James Joyce, 1922. A day in the life of Leopold Bloom. Much of it takes place, confusingly, inside Bloom's head; hence "stream of consciousness".

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, 1981. A complex edifice - the midnight represents the moment India gained independence.

War and Peace, 1865-69. More than 1,000 pages of passion, loyalty, personality and military campaigning. The central characters have six names each.

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