Bookshops are not dead. Long may it remain so.

Basheera Khan writes that bookshops should die. Retreating slightly from her panegyric for digital readers, she falls back on the library as the alternative. I doubt that my local library stocks or is able to get hold of even a tiny fraction of the books I have next to my bed. One of her commenters points out that, without a market for book sales, there would be no libraries anyway.

Even without the library argument, I think she’s profoundly wrong.

A book is a guarantee of permanence, and of ownership. There is no DRM baked into the printed word, and nothing stopping me reading a book I own whether I am in the middle of the Sahara or on my sofa. There is nothing stopping me lending it to a friend, and I don’t need to worry whether their reader device supports ePub, or whatever format. Lord Mandleson isn’t going to be around with the heavies if I start using a site like BookCrossing to share unwanted purchases.

When I buy a book, I’m buying a physical, real world object that has properties that can be appreciated beyond the words it contains. It can be beautifully bound, use attractive design elements, have respect for typography, and use the physical properties of the medium as part of the content.

For this last, I direct you to the novels of B.S. Johnson, in particular The Unfortunates, which contains a tied sheaf of booklets that can be read in any order, and Alberto Angelo, which contains holes cut into the paper to reveal hints of the contents on later pages. Neither of these techniques can be replicated on an eReader. The binding and physical form of the book is an intrinsic part of its content, rather like the frame in a Howard Hodgkin painting. (Another example: James Joyce once made a fuss over the size of a full-stop in Ulysess.) You very much should judge a book by its cover.

Saying that a book can be reduced to a screen is the same thing as saying that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is as good as the original. Thank heavens when we won’t be made to traipse around a physical space, but can have master works beamed into our houses, eh?

Bash’s error appears to derive from a belief that a book is like other forms of consumable media. A CD can be copied, error free onto another CD, or stored on a range of other devices. To all but the trained sound engineer, there is no difference between these copies.

The same can be said of video: it can be transcoded and copied, burnt to disc and played back on your computer with little if anything to distinguish between the different versions.

Books are not just texts, though. As I’ve shown, authors have made their fiction around the idea of a physical object. David Foster Wallace deliberately wrote convoluted pages of endnotes so as to the disrupt the reader’s ability to maintain their continuum of thought while reading his masterpiece Infinite Jest. This aim is defeated if they are the tap of a hyperlink away. War and Peace, for example, should feel heavier in the hand than Heart of Darkness. But, as Bash points out, all books weigh the same on a reading device.

The experience of listening to vinyl, cassette or CD is essentially the same. The sound qualities are different, but in other respects it’s identical. But the experience of reading a book is fundamentally different from reading a text on a reading device. Many – and I’d contend that these are mainly people who are not compulsive readers – will not care about this distinction, but this is the market that successful booksellers are targeting.

Borders and Books etc are in trouble because they are not good bookshops. There is little to distinguish one shop from the next and, on the whole, their staff are not knowledgeable about the books they sell. They clearly don’t read reviews, or subscribe to major literary periodicals. Bash makes the mistake of assuming that because Borders’ business is in trouble that there is a fundamental problem with the concept of the bookshop itself.

But go to any one of a number of independent bookshops – Daunt Books and the London Review Bookshop are two excellent examples – and you’ll find that things are very different. In Daunt’s case, they have understood that many people buy books to take with them on holiday. They arrange their stock by country, using a fuzzy logic that says that The Third Man should be in the Austria section, while The Power and the Glory should be in the Central America section. Fiction is mixed with history, with economics, with drama and with art. The result is a wonderful place to browse, to uncover relationships between books and subjects that one did not appreciate before.

More than this, Daunt is staffed by people who are knowledgeable about books. A few months ago, I went into their Holland Park branch and enquired about a reissue of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The guy behind the desk remembered reading a review in the London Review of Books, which was where I’d seen it. He looked it up on the computer, to no avail. Then he remembered that it had been published by the Folio Club, which only sells to members. No amount of searching on Amazon.co.uk or asking at Borders would have helped me here.

I buy hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds of books every year. Nearly all of those pounds are spent in independent bookshops. The rest is split between Waterstone’s, a mega-chain that caters to both serious reader and non-reader alike, and Amazon. Amazon has the unique ability to put me in touch with second hand or specialist dealers who are sometimes the only way of getting hold of a copy of a book, and Waterstone’s are convenient. Very occasionally, I’ll buy a book I’ve never heard of from Waterstone’s because of their ‘Staff Picks’ displays. But the ’3 for 2′ tables are rarely of any interest; nine times out of ten, if there’s a book in the ’3 for 2′, I’ve either already read it, already have it or am not interested. But I recognise that these are an important part of Waterstone’s’ success.

There’s another reason that bookshops are different from other media shops. An online music or video catalogue can give you a genuine preview of the item you’re about to buy. A sample of a track or a clip from a movie are the same thing on the web as they are in person; in fact, you’ll be lucky to find a high street music or video store that lets you try before you buy. Again, this is not true of books. Bookshops are a place where you can wonder in, spend hours reading, thinking, selecting and relaxing, all the time using the stock for real. There are very few shops that are like this other than bookshops. Try wondering into to Gap and see how happy they are for you to strip off and wonder around the store sporting a new wardrobe for the day.

Most people don’t read seriously, and for them, these arguments will make no sense. But for the millions of people who do read compulsively, eReaders are not going to be universally welcomed. One day, a novelist will write a novel that can only be experienced on a digital device because it uses features that only such a device can provide. But even then, the entire history of literature will still be there, with a good proportion of it in print. And bookshops – good, well-staffed, well-run ones – will be with us for a long time to come.

Leave a comment

Required fields are marked. Don’t worry - we won’t do anything fishy with your email address.