Today is World Book Day in the UK and Ireland, a "worldwide celebration of books and reading" which, in the UK anyway, is "a partnership of publishers, booksellers and interested parties, who work together to promote books and reading for the personal enrichment and enjoyment of all." All, that is, except those who wish the future of books wasn't so alarmingly rocky.
Can't you just feel it, under your fingers? That the actual, physical, solid, hefty, caramel-scented, 200-winged phenomenon we call the book is gradually slipping away from us? Maybe I'm alarming myself prematurely. Of course if the Man Booker judges are being offered this year's competing 100 plus novels in the form of Kindle downloads, they don't have to read them like that. When US publishers report that 30 per cent of the sales of their bestselling books are now in electronic mode, it doesn't mean they'll soon represent 50, then 70, then 100 per cent of book sales. Not for a while anyway.
When I wrote recently about a new coffee-table tome called Living With Books – full of moody photographs of stylish people's living rooms featuring bookshelves – it shouldn't have bothered me that the authors showed no interest whatsoever in the titles on the shelves, as if books were no more than random design units in pleasing shapes and colours; but it did.
I don't mean to turn into a harrumphing old Luddite when I read that schoolchildren will henceforth be discouraged from answering exam questions in ballpoint on paper, and will be expected to use the computer instead; but, again, I do.
As if in response to the fear that books as physical objects will die out, I've become a shameless fetishiser about the act of writing – the ways writers transfer their thoughts to paper. On World Book Day, let me recommend to you an unusual published work, the spring Bonhams catalogue, in which you'll find a lovely article on Tom Stoppard. The great playwright reveals to his thunderstruck interviewer that he doesn't actually own a computer, that he owns a selection of classic fountain pens which he rotates "like a king with a stock of royal mistresses." He writes on loose sheets of paper between noon and 4pm, and between 9pm and 1am. And he has to be able to smoke while doing so. This quality of detail is catnip to the fetishist.
Truman Capote (or so he told the Paris Review) could only write while lying face-down on a sofa, smoking furiously. Rudyard Kipling wrote his best stuff, or so he thought, with a particular fountain pen, inside which lived a fearsome djinn, or genie, that had to be fed with the blackest possible ink. Graham Greene wrote exactly 500 words a day with a black fountain pen in a black leather notebook. WB Yeats used to meditate on the tiny space where the tip of his pen met the white vellum, and ink flowed into letters and words. Hemingway used to creep up on his muse, so to speak: he would write, standing up, in pencil on thin onion-paper until he felt things were going well, at which point he'd sit down and transfer it into a portable typewriter with both fists.
And all that colourful endeavour has become, for almost all writers, an identical business of clicking a keyboard and gazing into a screen; the resulting masterpiece will soon be available only inside the same screen. I've no doubt that stories, novels, poetry and drama will survive for ever – only not as we know it, Dave. Even the World Book Day people, who are offering a school display pack full of ideas, activities and display material, warn that "most of the traditional pack material will migrate online in 2011." Migrate? Or disappear?
But your Honour, this seems ridiculous
Things are getting complicated at the New York trial of former jailbird Kenneth Minor, accused of stabbing "motivational speaker" Jeffrey Locker to death. The defence argues that Locker, who was heavily in debt, had hired Minor to help him kill himself, having taken the precaution of buying $14m-worth of life insurance. They argue that Minor merely held the knife in front of Locker, who lunged forward and impaled himself – just like various noble Romans used to do. It was, therefore, assisted suicide on Minor's part, and nothing more. Well, I have limited experience of the ins and outs of murder, but one thing seems suspicious.
I can imagine a motivational speaker doing many things, including conning a down-and-out into an act of violence. But I cannot see anybody, no matter how determined, lurching forward on to a knife – then de-impaling himself and doing it again, and again, six times more. So the defence is balls. Is it too late for me to re-train as a Manhattan attorney?
The one thing that really gets our goat...
Only last week we learned that what most irritates British people these days isn't call centres, Piers Morgan or ghouls who photograph crash victims on their mobile phones.
It's becalmed pedestrians. If somebody halts for no reason in front of us on Oxford Street or a Tube walkway, we seethe and fume at that more that at anything else. But there's another, more dangerous spur to anger, as the staff of the Sugarswirlz cake shop in Cardiff discovered this week.
A customer asked for one of their Sweet Tooth fairy cakes, a sickly concoction involving candy floss and costing £2.20.
On being told they'd run out, she went completely postal. She smashed glass display cabinets, spilt cakes everywhere, hurled cupcakes at customers, threw herself on the floor screaming, seized one of the counter staff by the hair, and finally ran off accompanied by her two sons.
Thank heaven she hadn't been stuck behind a stalled pedestrian when she learned the news, or there would've been blood all over the shop, along with the pink cream and the icing sugar.