For many people, starting to read a novel is a significant investment of time and represents a real opportunity cost. Book sales slip. Publishers respond by concentrating on a limited set of authors within strict categorisations to make choice easy for the would-be purchaser. However, this tight, predictable formula clearly jades the palates of many readers, and their response does not appear to have been to rush back to the bookshop and gamble another pounds 5 in the hope that the next book will prove to be significantly different.
If competing with other writers to supply books written to the strict formula demanded by agents and publishers is all that the existing system can offer, is it any wonder that the Internet is now hosting a new literary community? If the technology permits people to circulate their work in progress, to be stimulated by comment, and to get greater satisfaction from the final result, so be it. And if within the next few years I can download a clutch of novels, both old and new, to a paperback-sized device with a nice backlit screen and with the size and style of fount set to my preference, I will read more. And so will many other people.
Don't worry, Mr Walsh. The times may be a-changin' but it is probably for the better.
Sir: John Walsh bases his article on a book by an unknown American professor of English, Sven Birkerts. Big mistake: unknown American academics are not like their European counterparts, but operate in a competitive market where only the most outrageous receive attention. It was only a matter of time before the end of literature would be formulated in order to back up a grant application. Of course, such a thesis will be self-contradictory and pointless, and even the doomsday knell of "the fate of reading in an electronic age" in the title of Birkerts's book is as much a soundbite as anything in the soundbite culture he derides.
People do not on the whole tend to swap comfort for discomfort, and until the experience of electronic reading is as comfortable as curling up with a paperback, the book as the artefact we know will be safe. And when the computer adapts in this way, the book will have won; just as it won when it moved from hand-illumination, to movable type, to the paperback.
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