So You Think the Book is Dead. Really?

‘It’s official, the book is dead’ according to the Huffington Post. It supports its case by showing an image of old Readers Digest condensed books cut into the shapes of letters and for sale for $20. I was never a condensed book reader, preferring the original novel to an edited version, which left out ….well, what? However, they must have served a purpose for those people who were time-short and wanted to get through the latest Wilbur Smith in a hurry. Or perhaps we are so time-short these days we don’t even have time to read condensed versions of best sellers. Perhaps it is a mix of both and I wonder where that leaves writers.

‘Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist’ was the quote that jumped out at me when I recently read Ewan Morrison’s article in the Guardian. He says publishers are dropping their mid-listers or these authors are abandoning their publishers for more lucrative arrangements with self-publishing agencies. Even Ben Okri, at the recent Auckland Writers Festival admitted to feeling sorry for writers in these ‘very difficult times’.

To hear that we struggling writers are going to cease existing was a most disturbing view to read indeed. He was not alone in his point of view.

So a scan of the environment might be a good idea.

Over the weekend, I was at the Auckland Writers Festival in Auckland. What a wonderful, inspiring event it was. I doubt very much that the 60,000 people who attended that five day event would agree that the book was dead and the people who wrote them without a future. During every break, the massive piles of books (hardback and soft cover) disappeared as people clambered to buy them and staff had to rush away to get replacements. Queues snaked across the room as readers tenderly held their books and waited to get them signed. Writer’s cramp took on a new meaning for me as I watched those patient people putting their name to their lovingly crafted book (fiction and non-fiction). There were two independent book outlets working massive hours to keep the shelves stacked. I predict their doors won’t be closing any time soon.

But the most telling thing of all was the children’s programme. If the future of books was in doubt, this is what convinced me it was not happening any time soon. Kids and their parents (the latter looking as though their treasured Sunday morning lie in continued in an upright position) lined up for three hours (I was one of them – grandparent, actually)  to get a book autographed by the author of the Captain Underpants series for my grand daughter’s birthday. I had already been to get the latest novel by Tim Winton signed and that queue had come and gone, but not the kid’s line. It snaked through the Aotea Centre up to the top of the stairs that led to the second level. It was breath taking. And the kids were so excited about their books. They were reading them, sharing bits from them, joking and laughing about Captain Underpants and his antics. Then I read that Dav Pilkey had sold 70 million copies of his books and I wondered what I was doing writing adult books. But he was way out of my league, drawing funny pictures and writing hilarious messages to each of his excited fans and posing with them as their parents took photos using….of course, their mobile phones.

I could not believe how many obviously very tired parents had come out on a Sunday morning at their children’s bidding that they (the children) wanted to hear Dav Pilkey speak and buy one or more of his books. He was a superstar. Those young people will grow into adult booklovers.

I saw no child reading an electronic device. Nor did I see too many adults taking a moment out in that entire suffocating energetic book loving crowd to read their kindles, Nooks or whatever.

So here’s my confession. Yes, I have a kindle, but the books Bruce and I bought over the two days sit on our table piled high as if we have amassed a huge fortune. ‘Our year’s reading’ we proudly proclaimed. And yes, it is, but we will buy more as the year goes on. We are addicted.

I will take my kindle when we travel in a few months’ time, but I will also be taking a couple of the books I bought to read during the flights. I already have favourites, which will sit beside my bed until I have read the last word, then take up pride of place in my office bookshelf.  And I am sure I am not alone. I have long thought that digital books have many advantages…one of them being the vast number I can carry on a single device. But not a single word is going to greet my eager eyes if my battery goes flat….which is why I always carry a back-up paperback. I bet I am not alone. And there is something about real books which even those kids at the festival acknowledged. It is the one way we can get close to a writer and hold his or her words in our hands.

I love books and how they are delivered to me can vary, but I would be utterly lost if the words of master crafters were lost to me because technology failed or someone decreed one delivery format was superior to another. Books will remain part of our cultural heritage. However, the book stores that sell them may, and probably will, specialise and cater to a niche buyer. It will become the local for those readers and then they will download the other books onto the electronic devices for convenience.





What a lovely post and how pleased I was that so many people attended your festival of books. I received my first book when I was less than a year old. My dad was traveling and as a book lover, whenever he returned home he brought me a book. I still have those books. I don't need to confess my age. The tradition has continued. I love to read almost as much as I love to write.
Thank you.
Thank you Kalli
I really enjoyed your comment and I always love to hear young people say they love to read. Their lives can be changed by reading.