3 August 2009 0 Comments

A Gripping Read, or Gripping your Read


I’m delighted to present a guest blogger today whose terrific new novel STOP ME is out tomorrow. Richard Jay Parker was born in the same South Wales town as me, just around the corner from where my parents now live. In our different ways, clearly, the mean streets of Newport shaped a real pair of sickos. STOP ME’s conceit is a truly riveting one: “Vacation Killer” sends out a chain email declaring that he’s kidnapped a woman and that if you don’t forward the email to 10 friends he’ll “slit the bitch’s throat.” Here Richard grapples with something that has many authors wishing they could slit the throat of the inventor – digital reading devices.

I’m not pro or anti when it comes to Kindle and Reader so, for my blog, I thought I’d have a dialogue with myself – with no agenda – and see what comes of it. Fortunately, this insures me against having to write anything cohesive.

Would I buy a Reader? The answer is a categoric ‘yes’ – if it can enrich my life. It’s my criteria for investing in any new technology and I suspect it’s most other people’s as well. Things move fast in this world and I’ve always been willing to embrace new technology – if it can do something for me. I’m not one for wanting the latest gadget just because it’s the latest gadget. You always get a reflex purchase reaction from a certain percentage of the population to any new gizmo. I think that’s what we’re seeing at the moment. We saw it with video, dvd and iPhone and we also saw it with Betamax, laserdisc and minidisc.

What can a Reader offer me on a personal level? Currently it’s being sold on the notion that no longer will I have to take unwieldy hardbacks on holiday and that I’ll be able to download and store all my books neatly and conveniently. I rarely buy hardbacks so it’s no hardship to put a selection of paperbacks into a suitcase so that’s not particularly tempting me. There’s the cost implication of course. E books are cheaper but then you have to buy the Reader in the first place and can I be bothered to do a calculation of how many cheaper books I’ll have to read on it before I’ve made the money back. Not really

But I do recognise that for busy professionals – particularly in the industry – loading a plethora of reading material onto something so neat has got to be a huge plus. But how many of us will that appeal to? There’s also the benefit of being able to load your entire library onto it – as you would music onto your iPod. An incredible concept. The notion of so much on something so little is a design that has driven mankind’s quest for technological advancement since the beginning of the 20th century. I’m certainly somebody who enjoys access to a large portable archive of music but I don’t know if I really want to dip into my reading collection other than at home – my current paperback is usually sufficient when I’m out and about. One Reader is now being made to look just like that book.

So, although it doesn’t convince me personally, the Reader does what all new technology should and makes life easier and services a need. There is a human need I can think of that it doesn’t service though.

I was chatting to some friends of mine who make all their money from Internet technology. I’d noticed that their shelves were still groaning with new books, dvd box sets and cds and asked them why they didn’t download all they wanted from the net. They said they still loved the physical presence of a product – the cover and packaging as a solid testament to the money they’d spent on it and the time they’d spent with it. It was a part of their life and a badge to visitors to their home of what they rated and liked. So rather than press one button and have Sky Plus conveniently record every episode of a series on a hard drive they still wanted the box set as a record of their involvement with it.

I’ve downloaded a lot of music but if you believed the portents of doom of a decade ago there should now be no physical music outlets left. Some have closed – the nature of shopping has had to make room for the internet but people are still tactile beings – they still like to browse. I think books are even more of a physical experience. A gripping read means just that to me.

I was speaking to someone on Twitter yesterday who is gradually loading up their Reader with their favourite books. However, she still said she loved the feel and smell of real books and had hundreds on her shelf.

Another anti Reader argument is that e books will see a flood of inferior books being self published. On a positive note this does also mean that we’ll be able to discover some original voices that the current publishing system precludes.

When I started downloading music I discovered some great new artists that I normally wouldn’t have had access to. I was also able to become more choosy and the dross I could quickly identify and dispense with. Moreover, it re-affirmed that having a system that sieves out inferior artists is necessary and although the publishing industry isn’t infallible (and has foisted some execrable rubbish on society) it does develop and allow the best talent to shine. It’s still quality that will out for an ever more discerning public.

To get away from the music/book analogy I suppose books and Readers are like real food and food pills. Convenience is never going to completely outstrip the need for the real thing.

Sci-fi writers’ predictions always presuppose (for the sake of a good story) that man’s trajectory into the future is a straight line. They don’t account for the fact that we’re an aesthetic race with a healthy respect for what has worked in the past. It’s why we’re not all content to live in aseptic, minimalist techno pads but instead crave period property and want to preserve our heritage.

Not to say that the book is outmoded though. It’s a simple model that works as well today as it always has.

I’d be lying if I said that, throughout my life, I haven’t fallen out of love with books but I’ve always come back to them and there’s a reason for that. The book has survived my fads, banning, burning, cinema, TV, video, dvd, Gameboy, Karaoke and Wii so I’m sure it can weather the appearance of a smarter cousin trying to be a simultaneously thicker and thinner version of it.

Mobiles changed the way we converse (and unfortunately the way we have to listen to others converse) but not many of us are disposing of our landline.

I’m not becoming anti Reader. I actually believe the two can happily co-exist. I can’t think of any instances now when I’d use a Reader but I’m certainly not ruling one out.

Sure there’s a lot of doom and gloom in publishing at the moment but any industry that thinks it’s recession proof is arrogant indeed. We’re all experiencing it on every level. Obviously the Reader contractual ramifications for publishers and authors are an additional headache but as with every threat to western civilisation as we know it we always emerge the other side. Wiser? Probably not because there’s always a new fear to fill up column inches and keep us awake at night.

I also don’t buy the argument that it’s a generational thing – that when the yellowing book reactionaries have snuffed it the new technology will rise. If that was the case why, with all the home entertainment technology listed above, do children still queue round the block in fancy dress to get their hands on the new Harry Potter? And that’s the key phrase here ‘get their hands on.’ We’ll leave media hysteria and peer pressure for another blog but these books are definitely being read. They’re something we’re familiar with from the time we put our smudgy hands all over a pop-up book.

But at some stage I will go and have a look at the new Reader – weigh it in my hand but, more importantly, weigh up whether or not I’m going to benefit from it. I can’t wait to read the next chapter in this saga and – on a personal level – to feel the pulp between my fingers when I turn the page.

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