Mark Booth: The book is dead. Long live Facebook!

Novels may decline, but not creativity. A publisher foresees a revolution in reading

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform