Among The Dead Trees

Final day of revision. Birkbeck Library today is packed with  students, all in the same boat. It’s the height of exam season, and it can be hard to find a seat in the library, even at 8pm in the evening. Torrington Square is full of red-trousered boys (seems to be the fashion) with armfuls of books.

Lots of  ‘Good luck!’

or, later on in the day:  ‘I can’t believe that question…’

And it still is real books they carry about the campus, along with their laptops. The trolleys for books to be re-shelved look like they’ve been there pre-internet, and they’re still under heavy use.  I think one reason is that even though a lot of research can now be done online, there’s still plenty of academic texts that just aren’t available digitally, at least not for free. It can also be healthier to work from a book alongside a laptop, if only to give the eyes a break from the screen. The classes themselves are still paper-heavy, too, with A4 ‘hand-outs’ given out at most lectures and seminars. I’ve seen some students do their lecture notetaking on iPads and netbooks, but the majority scribble away with pen or pencil.

Today might be a watershed for the history of paper books in Britain, in fact, as Waterstones have announced they’ll be selling Kindle e-books in their shops. Quite how this will work will be interesting (special machines in-store?), but it’s an inevitable step, now that e-books have started to take off. To be able to buy Kindle books without having to give money to the tax-avoiding giant that is Amazon can only be an good thing.

Here’s an interesting article by the author Linda Grant, in favour of Kindles as a device, but uneasy about letting Amazon hog the market. She makes the point that books are mainly written on screens now, so why is it so strange to want to read them on screens too?


My exam is tomorrow morning at 10am. The last time I took an exam, Margaret Thatcher was in power.

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Not Butch Enough For Twain

Friday: I pop into Gay’s The Word bookshop on Marchmont Street. Not only is it still going after Borders and Books Etc have toppled (and going for some decades now), but there’s a healthy amount of customers inside browsing away.

Despite owning a Kindle – because I own a Kindle – I still love to purchase nicely-designed paper books to vary my reading life. Independent bookshops are obviously the place to do it. Today I pick up three books for a tenner: Truman Capote’s Children on Their Birthdays, Carson McCullers’s Wunderkind, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. The first two are from Penguin’s Mini Modern Classics range, 50 titles celebrating 50 years of their Modern Classics; very cute ultra-pocket-sized grey paperbacks at £3 each. The Baldwin edition is from the Penguin Great Loves range: A-sized pocket paperbacks with a little logo of two penguins about to snog. Perfect examples of the way paper publishing should be going: beautiful & compact and lighter than a Kindle, so even fans of e-books will be smitten. If Apple made paperbacks, this is what they’d look like.

A-sized paperbacks were what Penguin started with in the first place: those classic stripey covers in orange or purple from the 30s and 40s, the design available now on mugs and tea towels and pencil cases, but not for any new fiction. It’s the size I care about. The standard Penguin paperback size for new novels is like most UK paperbacks: B-format, a bit too big for pocket-sized.

Yet this seems to be a uniquely British taste. At the branch of Foyles in St Pancras, they have a range of French language bestsellers, including your Dan Browns and Stieg Larssons. But they’re all A-sized pocket paperbacks. So why do British readers like their paperbacks to be bigger than the French?

I’m guessing it’s a kind of snobbery. The A-format is looked down upon as more trashy (and wrongly so, to my mind). It seems reserved purely for mass-market genre titles, eg those Terry Pratchett paperbacks with the cartoony covers. Or quality reissues of much, much older material, like the Penguin Great Loves, Great Ideas and Mini Modern Classics. Literary and new and on paper cannot be portable, apparently. They tend to be either C-sized paperbacks (even bigger) or cumbersome hardbacks. The newly published Mark Twain autobiography is a hardback of wrist-snapping height and breadth. I’m keen to read it, but I’m not butch enough to lift it up in the shop. Thankfully, there’s a Kindle version. So that’s one point scored for e-books right there: they’re perfect for bigger books.

This also shows up the increasingly anachronistic practise of ‘two tier’ publishing in the UK: a hardback first, then a B-format paperback edition a year later. I’ve read an interesting article suggesting that Radiohead’s album ‘business model’ (I do hate that phrase) should make publishers sit up and take notice. The band releases albums as cheap digital MP3 versions alongside more expensive boxed CD and double vinyl formats. So the collector’s urge to own something pretty on their shelves is sated separately from the basic urge to consume the art itself, and (crucially) at the same time. E-books, thankfully, are now being released alongside the hardbacks, so that’s what weak-wristed portability fans like myself go for. But this leaves booksellers missing out. Bookshops can’t sell e-books, but they can sell paperbacks. And I like the paper experience too, if it’s light and compact. Not just me, either: I-Phones and the success of Penguin’s aforementioned reissue ranges are proof that an awful lot of people want things to be small & cute, whether paper or digital.

So maybe this era of e-books and bookshops struggling to survive will force paperbacks to come out at the same time as hardbacks AND be small & pretty. In which case, speed the day.

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Hilary Mantel Without The Back Pain

Whenever anyone lets me have a play on their iPhone or Blackberry or similar handheld do-everything gadget, I find myself searching for excuses not to like it. ‘My fingers are too large – it’s too fiddly’, I say. Or ‘It’s too expensive – I’d only lose it or have it stolen.’

The real reason is that I fear I’d never put the thing down once I bought it. I do have a mobile phone, deliberately chosen for its cheapness and ugliness. So I find myself switching it off most of the time, and I often leave it at home altogether when I go out. Which rather defeats the object of a mobile phone, but if the alternative is to be one of those people who never put their phone away at all – and I fear I would be – then it’s for the best.

Actually, I realise it’s increasingly strange in the city to NOT have one’s phone to hand all the time. So I’m hoping I can just work this omission into my image of a fogeyish weirdo not entirely in phase with the world.

I do have a vade mecum, though: a pocket notebook and pen (either a traditional-sized Moleskine or a passport-sized Moleskine Cahier, depending on the jacket). In fact, the other night I was standing in the audience at a cabaret event, jotting down notes, when an audience member pounced on me. What was I writing, he demanded to know. And who was I, anyway?

Had I been using a phone to take photos or record video, or to update Twitter or Facebook, I’m convinced his interest would not have been piqued. Tapping at a shiny, glowing gadget in public is now an invisible act. Writing discreetly in a paper notebook, meanwhile, is more likely to attract attention by the laws of scarcity value. Though admittedly I often draw the attention of strangers anyway, and the notebook may well have been an excuse.

Today Harper Collins announced they’re publishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as an application for the iPhone, bundling it with video interviews of the author by way of extras. My initial reaction was to wonder how many people actually read whole novels on a mobile phone. Then again, I had similar doubts ten years ago when MP3s started to appear, and I was convinced that listening to music through a computer would never catch on.

But that was before the era of the iPod. Portability is everything. iPhones, Kindles and iPads are thin and light, and until now Wolf Hall was only available in hardback – one the size of a house brick.

(Actually, I can remember when mobile phones were like house bricks, too.)

The author Christopher Fowler wrote in his blog recently that he hoped the e-book revolution would see publishers catering for people who still prefer paper books, but who don’t have the kind of biceps for carrying fat doorstoppers as we saunter about town. He suggests they put out cheap paperback editions at the same time as the hardback, as small and as slim as production can manage (maybe Gideon Bible-thin paper). He cited a limited edition of Susanna Clarke’s epic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, published in one edition as a set of three thinner, more portable paperbacks, reminiscent of those Victorian multi-volume novels. Count me in.

Until then, I have to admit being attracted to ebooks purely out of lack of butchness.