As well as that, bibliophiles who go online are among the quickest to discover the Internet's famed ability for letting you do spectacularly useless things; who would have thought that somebody in a Balham flat would be able to browse the New York Public Library's catalogue from their bedroom?
However, bookselling is one area where the Internet has really taken off. The pioneer is a company in America, Amazon Books, which now offers 2.5 million titles through its website. (This is, they say, compared to an average bookshop which can only house about 175,000 titles.) It also has the advantage of being based in the US. Not only can you buy books that are published there months before they appear in Britain, but you can often get hold of books that may never appear here at all. Although, to save you the bother of trying, Amazon is refusing at the moment to sell people over here a copy of Kitty Kelley's controversial book, The Royals, on the grounds that the publishers are worried about being sued for libel in Britain.
The real advantage websites have over bookshops, though, is their increasingly sophisticated search facilities. Look up any author or title on Amazon and it will start offering up suggestions on related subjects. It can also follow current affairs. Within two days of Princess Diana's death, the company was offering a selection of books on coping with bereavement.
Amazon's success hasn't gone unnoticed over here. The Oxford-based Internet Bookshop, which offers a similar service to Amazon's, sold half a million books in 1996, whereas Waterstone's books' service, which went online a year ago, receives about 80,000 visits a month.
Certainly, these sites will never replicate the pleasure of browsing in real bookshops, but it was mighty satisfying to get hold of a particularly obscure science book from Amazon. For years, everyone had insisted it was out of print and impossible to get hold of.
Who knows? I might even get round to reading it one day.
Amazon books: www.amazon.com
The Internet Bookshop: www.bookshop.co.uk
New York Public Library:
telnet://nyplgate.nypl.org/ Allows access to the New York Public Library's catalogue via telnetReuse content