Dickens, Barnes and The Book As Object

Here’s an article on The Quietus website featuring myself and Tony of Turbonegro. We talked about suits & music. Tony was promoting his gig and I was promoting, well, myself in general. Good to have a chance to show off the Sebastian Horsley suit.

Link to Quietus article. 

Link to S Horsley obituary, with pic of him in the same suit. 


One of the Study Skills workshops I attended in the last fortnight was for Time Management. I was late for it.

A strategy that keeps coming up is to stick to a rigid schedule, putting aside study slots but keeping them to 45 mins at a time. After 45 mins concentration is thought to tail off drastically, and one needs a break. It’s also said that if you do the same thing every day for six weeks, you’ll do it forever. That goes for giving up smoking, giving up sugar in tea, taking up writing, whatever. Actually, six weeks in my skittish, near-addict case sounds too much: I think I form my habits after two.


Tonight was a lecture on Wordsworth and Milton, and how the former used the latter in his Prelude.

Then we had a seminar on The Book As Object. Although I’ve been careful not to pipe up too much in classes up to now, I couldn’t help chipping in on this topic rather more often than usual. I find it such a fascinating subject. I can link the way Dickens’s novels were originally published in cheap monthly paperback instalments, each packaged in green wrappers with a supplement of adverts that had been specially selected to go with the story. For me, that’s comparable to Search Engine Optimisation on the Web today. Victorian SEO.

I also linked the way Voltaire put out his works in varying editions, some with exclusive additions, in order to play the booksellers of 18th century France off against each other – not to make money, but to get his Enlightenment ideas as widespread as possible. This, I suggested, was comparable to the way Terry Pratchett has let Waterstones put out an special edition of his latest novel with an extra short story in the back – not a new marketing idea at all.

Meanwhile Julian Barnes, in his Booker acceptance speech the other day, praised his designer and added:

“If the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

It’s interesting that Mr Barnes thinks the e-book is a ‘challenge’ to the paper book. I think he’s quite wrong. The e-book should be regarded as a third format, alongside the paperback and hardback. There’s a lot ebooks can’t do which paper books can, and vice versa.  Many e-sceptics might not be aware that e-books have given a new lease of life to slow readers, dyslexics and the poorly-sighted, thanks to the way you can enlarge and space out the fonts. However, they’re still at the mercy of battery power, pricey tablet devices, DRM problems, and the sense that an ebook isn’t quite the personal property of the reader in the way a paper book is – you can’t easily get it signed, lend it to a friend, or scribble in the margin.

As Douglas Adams said somewhere, nothing is getting replaced. Things just budge up to make room.

The little Barnes hardback is beautifully designed, but whether it’s worth owning and paying the recommended retail price of £12.99, when the Kindle ebook version is only £3.59, is debatable. And paperbacks can be beautiful objects too (the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ range springs to mind), but the Barnes novel won’t be in paperback until 2012.

That’s another issue.  There is still this ludicrous, elitist idea amongst the British publishing and reviewing scene that a literary novel must come out in hardback first.

If, like Voltaire, you think the main thing is to get your work read by as many people as possible, you need to not only embrace e-books, but join the growing trend to put out a mass-market paperback alongside the hardback (like the rest of the Booker shortlist, in fact). There is no challenge to any format, unless you believe that novels are ‘meant’ to be in hardback form. Which would rule out Dickens and his original, cheap, flimsy, advertising-packaged installments.

Dickens and Voltaire wrote to be read, first and foremost. They’d have welcomed e-books. Why shouldn’t anyone else?

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