Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age, by Jeff Gomez

Reviewed,Scarlett Thomas
Sunday 25 November 2007 01:00
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Almost every writer who works on a computer will recognise the anxiety: you have maybe 100,000 words in a word-processing file, sometimes backed up on a memory stick or (is this just me?) e-mailed to your mother for safekeeping, but a book or an article just never feels "safe" until it appears in print. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who actually sleeps better when a book is out there, instead of merely existing in a fizzing jumble of zeros and ones on a device that, were it to come into too-close contact with a magnet, or a bottle of Coke, or the sea, or the ground, would be useless and all the information on it lost.

I've used computers since I was nine years old. I have word-processed every significant document I've ever written. I own an iPod (actually, two) and waste time on Facebook when I should be working. I even have a BlackBerry. But in the frame of reference set out by this book, I am a living anachronism because I still cling to the "silly" and " old-fashioned" idea that when you want to read something important it's best to have it in front of you on a piece of paper, or in a book. Perhaps I hang out with too many old people, but I don't know anyone who wouldn't agree with me. Reading off the screens that exist at the moment seems to give everyone some combination of eyestrain, backache, hot-lap and nervous tension. If you need to make marginal notes while you read, nothing beats a pencil. (Anyone who has been on the wrong end of Track Changes will understand this immediately, and there are plenty of urban myths in publishing about hapless publicists who write things such as "Add some good bullshit here about the author's last book" on a draft press release, then change it, then send it out digitally only to find that – yikes! – the sentence never completely went away.)

The argument set out in this book is quite simple. Times have changed, and while old folk like me persist in buying CDs before putting them on our iPods, and using the Internet to buy, rather than experience, "content", there is something out there called "Generation Download" that does, like, everything on a computer, and will "ditch the hardback and head over to Facebook" because books are, like, not interactive enough, and too long, and have, like, "boring bits". Wouldn't it be great if books could be freed from their restrictive old dustjackets and people could download only the bits of them they want (the maypole scene from Fanny Hill perhaps?) and carry whole libraries of these bits on their iPhones and "experience" – or even shuffle – this "content" whenever and wherever they want? As Gomez says, "Generation Download has no need to go to record stores. Software and websites bring the record stores to them. With their headphones always on, and an electronic device in each hand, there's no need to leave the house in order to escape their parents; they can still stare into their uneaten vegetables at the dinner table and still be in their own digital world."

Do these brats really exist? I've never met one. Perhaps they all live in America. But if they do exist, surely we don't want to reinvent books to please them? Of course lots of people do spend more time uploading things to YouTube and maintaining a MySpace page than they do eating vegetables and talking to their parents. But many of them read as well. If these kids really wanted books with the "boring" bits taken out, they'd be heavy users of Reader's Digest and Mills & Boon. As it is, big novels such as House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas still become cult bestsellers, and while there are demographics that contain people who do welcome this cut-and-paste, snippety approach to literature (which is not even a cutting-edge format, and includes, of course, things such as almanacs and commonplace books), most of them are not particularly young.

The main problem with Gomez's argument is that it is consistently reductive and general. "People love books," he tells us early on. Well, OK, but who? And what does this mean? He thinks sentimentality is the main reason why, but he doesn't seem to accept that people use books mainly because they don't crash, don't whir and hum, don't use electricity or batteries, don't give you headaches, don't have wires trailing everywhere and not enough USB ports and, if you've got a candle, you can still read them even when the lights go out. Stalin and Hitler may, as Gomez points out, have burned books, but surely if ideas went completely digital then all a contemporary dictator would need to do to destroy them would be to turn the power off. In my 26-year relationship with computers, I have learnt one very important thing: never trust them. Something will replace books at some point, but it certainly won't be my laptop, or even my BlackBerry. And it will be so obvious that no one will have to write a book about it first. *

Macmillan £14.99

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