The first printed book in the middle of the 15th century illumined human consciousness like no other technological innovation. Knowledge would no longer be available only to a churchy elite. Freedom of thought, freedom of opinion and creative imagination would evade any attempt to control it. If people had once drifted away on clouds of incense, they were now liberated by the smell of ink.
The evidence in 2008, however, suggests that book reading is in decline. I have worked in publishing for some 25 years and have also recently published a book of my own, conscious that it may be one of the last books. I think some people in the business don't want to admit that it's happening. To them it seems a betrayal of skills and standards that generations worked hard to maintain. They see apathy, short attention spans, illiteracy – what Auberon Waugh called the "proletarianisation" of Britain.
But to me these signs are pointing the way to a revolution more radical than Caxton's. The human mind is about to be turned inside out, opening up new dimensions of consciousness to anyone who isn't determined to keep the door shut. In Holland in 1955 reading took up 21 per cent of people's spare time. By 1995 it took up 9 per cent. In a recent survey, one in four Brits admitted they hadn't read a book in at least a year – and that's just the honest ones.
Booksellers are reporting their results in a guarded way. They say they are "cautiously confident", but the head of one of publishing's more prestigious sales forces recently told me that he didn't expect the chains to still be on the high street in anything like the same form in a year's time. The commercial director of Borders admits that "the net has grown significantly year on year", and the owner of the independent Clifton Books, in Bristol, which is closing after 43 years, cited online sales as the reason. Pessimists about the state of the book trade complain also about the types of books that are selling. Russell Brand's My Booky Wook is the latest outrage. Compare the 1990s, when I published books like Auberon Waugh's Will This Do? and Derek Jarman's Modern Nature. These were bestsellers in the first week of publication. That simply wouldn't happen now. This is because in the 1990s it was Waterstone's that set the tone for the trade. Now the supermarkets do. It is because supermarkets lead the way that Katie Price's volume of memoirs, Jordan: A Whole New World, sold more copies in hardback than any other autobiography published outside the Christmas season and Peter Kay's The Sound of Laughter was the best-selling autobiography ever in hardback.
The content of books is determined by the outlets that sell them. Books are commonly sold in supermarkets as part of an "entertainment" section consisting mostly of CDs and DVDs. Could this be a pointer? Last year, I suggested to my teenage daughter that we visit the HMV shop in Oxford Street. "Why would I want to do that?" she said. "I can download anything I want." The crisis in the music industry is well known and DVDs are no doubt about to be hit the same way. So when all CDs and DVDs are downloads, will supermarkets bother to keep the entertainment section going just for books?
Internet bookshops such as Amazon and Play.com had a brilliant Christmas, but even more significant, surely, was Amazon's launch in America of Kindle, a new wireless reading device. These hand-held readers are the size of a paperback. You can store about two hundred books on it, and what makes this little metal guru an advance on earlier readers is that, wherever you are, you can cheaply and easily download any book that's downloadable. Some say an electronic screen will never be as easy on the eye as paper, or that the page-turning on these machines is slow, but commercial pressure will ensure that these problems are solved – and much sooner than you think. I remember, on my commuter train, when someone first used a mobile phone. It was the size of a car battery and everyone laughed. Blink and everyone had one.
In the sixth form my jacket was perpetually pulled out of shape by a paperback in the pocket. I will always be nostalgic for the printed book, but my two teenagers use the screen to do their homework and it's where they spend much of their time, smirking. I foresee a time coming soon when the main edition of most books will be the download, and bookshops will then be the equivalent of vinyl record shops. New and exciting writing, the stuff that changes the world, will be published via the internet. Will the young share their reading matter as today they share music and films?
For a commissioning editor, the pressing question is this: when most books are sold on the net as downloads, how will this change their content? My hunch is that it will finally spell the end of the novel. Of course there are good, perhaps even great novelists writing today. But in contemporary fiction there seem to be no monumental novels that dominate our mental landscape in the same way as the masterpieces of Dickens, Thackeray or George Eliot. Few titanic novels wrestle with the great questions of life and death and seek to alter our perceptions of them.
But why should novels have declined? That seems counter-intuitive. It's here that esoteric philosophy shimmies Jeeves-like into view, because it provides a simple, cogent explanation. By esoteric philosophy, which I write about in my book, I mean an underground stream of philosophy that surfaces in modern groups like Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy. This alternative way of thinking is highly introspective, watching for the slightest changes in consciousness as intently as an astronomer watches the sky.
In the esoteric view, consciousness has changed in a much more radical way than historians generally allow, and the importance of the great novels of the 18th and 19th centuries is the role they played in forging the sense we all have – and take for granted – that we have an interior narrative. If people experienced this before the novel, if they earlier saw their lives as micro-histories with turning points, dilemmas and meaningful structures, they left no record of it, and, according to the esoteric account, they had no inkling of it except in sermons.
Now the work of the novel is finished, and a new form of consciousness is emerging. It's easy to misread the signs of the times. What we're dealing with here is not a decline in reading, but a decline reading printed books. I am fascinated to learn in The New Yorker that a recent survey in the States shows that a TV in a child's bedroom lowers academic grades, but a parallel survey shows that time spent on the internet encourages better grades!
Clearly interactivity is the key. Perhaps the creative things my children do on the net are less passive than reading books? If Caxton's was a revolution in reading, what we are seeing now is a revolution in reading and writing combined.
The great new literary form that will replace the novel will, I believe, arise on the net and will take on its wild frontier spirit, its intellectual risk-taking, its two fingers at academic control-freakery. But it will also help forge a new form of consciousness in a much more fundamental way that has to do with the form of the internet.
Because we are all plugging ourselves into one great electronic mind, we will gradually lose the sense of each being shut off in a private mental space, as esoteric philosophy has long predicted. Our mental space will be out there and, as with Facebook, everyone else will have access to it. I don't know what this new literary form will be, but I suspect it will be co-operative and as slinkily responsive to whoever is looking at it as Schroedinger's cat. I can't wait.
Mark Booth is publishing director of Century, an imprint of Random House
Further reading: Mark Booth's book, 'The Secret History of the World', is written under the pen name of Jonathan Black and published by Quercus