Firstly, an admission. I recently succumbed to the online behemoth that Amazon has become, slowly swallowing up the plankton of bookstores on our high streets.
The book in question was a recommendation: Vladimir Nabokov’s first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. I buckled after a trudge to two independent bookshops, a Waterstone’s and an Oxfam. The irony was that the Amazon delivery took days to arrive. An order at the local bookshop may have been quicker.
My reluctant journey to Amazon was an example of the high street’s failure. Amazon is a cog in a far larger online machine that is leaving our high streets denuded. The bookshop and record shop are going the same way as the butcher’s and greengrocer’s.
For many book lovers, online browsing does not supply the same breadth and pleasure that a bookshop offers. We do not encounter the unexpected – the beautiful cover that draws the eye, the shop’s choices of 10-best cult/comedy/sci-fi novels of the past century.
Amazon can only suggest books based on past choices, using science and probability rather than creative serendipity. The algorithms assume that a given reader who enjoys a Man Booker winner will not want to read the latest Jackie Collins. My failed forays to the bookshops led to unexpected delights – a book that was perfect for my sister’s birthday; a collection of Michel Faber’s stories, The Apple, which I didn’t know existed.
As publishers focus their attentions on the aesthetics of book covers in their fight against the facelessness of e-reading, the book is re-establishing itself as an object of beauty, to be picked up, leafed through, and touched before it is bought. Julian Barnes spoke of this in his Man Booker acceptance speech. Who knows, the bookshop may just survive as a result.