John Walsh: Tales of the City

'If ever there was a time to become a Luddite, this is it. This is what our parents warned us about'
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The Independent Online

So the future of the book is here at last. Jeff Bezos, the Seattle visionary behind Amazon, has been showing off his new device: it's called the Kindle, it's metal, sits in your hand like an extra-wide TV remote and features a six-inch screen on which you can read all the books in the world. It weighs 10oz, the battery lets you read for 30 hours before being recharged, and you can adjust the type-size of the text. The hard drive can hold 200 books, while lots more can be accessed from a memory card. Amazon is involved, even now, in scanning every single book in the –

Arrrgghh! If ever there were a time to become a Luddite, this is it. This is what our parents warned us about, when the computer revolution started around 1980. This is the Death of the Book, the end of printed text and old-style reading, as predicted thousands of times in the past decade. This is, more shockingly, the Last Trump of the Private Library. You've heard of the paperless office? Welcome to the book-less house. You thought the secondhand bookshop was doomed by online browsing? How do you feel about the end of the first -hand bookshop? Remember Francis Fukuyama's provocative book, The End of History? This is the End of Literature. It's reading, Jim, but not as we know it...

It's not going to happen overnight, any more than the death of the LP was an overnight putsch, or the death of the CD suddenly happened – no, hang on, that did suddenly happen. The CD racks in the nation's kitchens haven't had anything new in them for months, because so much new music is downloaded.

Luckily, there's a modern literary genius on hand to put it all into perspective. "Books are the last bastion of analog," Mr Bezos told Newsweek. "Music and video have been digital for a long time, and short-form reading has been digitised, beginning with the early web. But long-form reading really hasn't."

How one longs to grasp Mr Bezos by the throat, seize a trusty analog in the other hand and whack him on the bastion with it. How can a man who has spent his life selling books, and thereby making a fortune, talk like this? He's married to a novelist. Does he encourage his wife with cries of, "Darling, how's your new analog of long-form reading coming along?" But he's probably a chap for whom books don't furnish a room. Years spent in the Amazon warehouse where the world's books are stored have made him long for their physical extinction, to be reborn in computer format. They will not be dead; merely digitised.

What's shocking is the way the press, like turkeys enthusing over advent calendars, praise the Kindle, for its interactive technology: it puts you in touch with Amazon, where you can buy a book to install in your virtual library, you can then write a review of it via the keyboard, download virtual daily papers and magazines – oh, and access your favourite blogs as well for only 99c.

My head aches with the horror of it. Instead of the intense private communion with a book – living with its presence for weeks, noting how far into it you're strayed, sinking into a dark stream of connective insights inside its pages, looking back to earlier moments, subconsciously adding the cover image to your appreciation of its contents – we're being offered a bright, shiny little dustbin of not-quite texts, disconnected from their physical carapace, plus a host of techno-distractions, to make sure we don't try too hard to engage with any of them. You just know it's going to take over the world.

I've never been keen on burning books. But calling it a Kindle is just asking for trouble....


Tonight sees the announcement of the 2007 Bad Sex Award, for the most redundant or embarrassing description of sexual activity in a novel published this year. The prize started as a slap from Auberon Waugh and his Literary Review colleagues at authors stuck in a Lawrentian timewarp of orgasm-waves and forget-me-nots in pubic hair. Winners were supposed to accept the prize with humility. When Alexander Waugh took over the award, he proved as scornful as his father, but with extra moral censure: his prizegiving speeches condemn the "revolting" smut. But the prize just gets trendier, its recipients gleeful.

This year's line-up is full of marvels. The heroine of Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods discusses inter-species sex with a gorgeous robot. William Shakespeare, in Christopher Rush's Will, is deafened by Anne Hathaway ("She responded with those cries that men long to hear, the sweet deep moaning sounds that echo the sigh of oceans, the ebb and flow of fields, the sough of stars..." – the ebb and flow of fields?) Gary Shteyngart, one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, offers the worst spoken line of sexual intent in the history of human relationships ("'I wanna bust a nut inside you, shorty,' I said, 'I wanna make you sweat, boo. Let's do this thing.'" Norman Mailer makes a late (too late)bid for glory with a scene from The Castle in the Forest which off-puttingly combines elderly oral sex and the line, "Uncle was now as soft as a coil of excrement." Cheers, Norman.

But the prize must surely go to David Thewlis, for a passage that had me howling with mirth: in it, our hero is mounted by the appalling Rosa, whose idea of fun is to drip candle-wax over his chest until his nipple catches fire. Whereupon, "she reaches down and pours half a can of Stella over my scorched chest. I'm beginning to regret that I ever invited her in." I'll bet he is.

But where, dammit, am I? I published a novel this year, and was delighted when Paul Bailey, reviewing it here announced, "There is a gratuitous scene...that runs to over three pages and wholly deserves the Bad Sex Award for 2007." Yet I'm not even on the shortlist. It's a fix. It obviously comes down to who you know...