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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When Will Computers Be Finished?

One of the casting agencies emails me an application form in the Microsoft Word format. I usually open such things with the program Open Office, as I resent the assumption that one always has to buy expensive, world-dominating software like Word, so I try to use free alternatives like OO. Only thing is, Open Office mangles the application form. Lines are broken up, boxes are a mess, and lumps of text go strolling to different parts of the document where they frankly have no business to be.

I try another free alternative, Google Docs. This time the form looks perfect in the web browser, but when I print it out, some parts are missing. I go online and beg friends for help. They suggest Microsoft’s free alternative, Word Viewer, which I take time to download and install. But I still end up with formatting errors.

So I solve the matter by walking to the internet cafe in Archway Road. There, logging on to my mail and printing out the form using the cafe’s copy of Word 2007 takes mere minutes, as opposed the hours I wasted fiddling with the other programs.

Later, I actually realise I could have used the Word Viewer program after all: I just needed to download a separate ‘compatibility pack’ and install that. Oh, and I had to open up Internet Explorer and check for Microsoft Updates for the program too. And so it goes on. Upgrade, install, upgrade, install.

All of which reminds me how limited my patience is with computers, despite my reputation as a veteran blogger. What particularly vexes me is the constant need to keep up with owning and upgrading the right software and gadgets to properly interact with society.

There’s a comedian who has a routine about moving to London and being annoyed at the constant appearance of cranes, road works and building sites. ‘When will London be FINISHED?’ she wails.

That’s exactly how I feel about computers and software. And it reminds me how much I love paper books – the invention that requires no upgrade. Books never need compatibility patches or the right region player, or power or recharging. They just work.

I speak as no Luddite, however. I’ve had a Kindle e-book reader for several months now. It’s wonderful for reading when travelling, and I love the ability to resize fonts and check words in the built-in dictionary. But it can’t be signed by an author and can’t exist without being charged up (if only once a month). It also lacks the stand-alone nature of books, as well as their freedom from accidental file deletion and their irreplaceable aesthetic pleasure.  E-books won’t replace books just as paperbacks never replaced hardbacks. But computers will always frustrate. At least, they will with me.

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