Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Thingness of Books

Several of last week's discussions about book publishing - about the potential demise of the hardback, about the Kindle, Amazon's new e-book reader, about the wasteful sale or return book retail practice and suggestions for its abolition, and about whether or not we should write in the margins of books - circled implicitly around an important issue: that of the thingness or otherwise of books and how this might now be changing.

I hold up my hand: I have been guilty of fetishizing the physicality of books: of loving their feel and their look and their smell. Yet Nicholas Clee, drawing together two of these discussions (sale or return and the e-book) predicts a future in which books (or at least backlists) are digitized. In such a scenario, our concept of books would no longer be inextricably tied up with their thingness and objectness but would move towards that of books as abstract entities (ideas and imagination) which simply need vehicles - a more sophisticated concept, surely?

As for sale or return, Joel Rickett quotes Hachette's Tim Hely-Hutchinson on the 'heart-breaking' experience of seeing 'palette loads of some of your best books' coming back to the warehouse. I know how he feels: I'd say it was soul-destroying, actually, to get back a packet of copies of the short-story magazine metropolitan which I once published, to open it up and find the damn things fingered and grubby and no longer saleable. All that money down the drain: the money we spent printing them and sending them out and the money the bookshop spent sending them back. Dead things - dead trees - which no one would now read. I used to hope that the fact that they were dog-eared meant that someone had read them - hopping on one foot while the shop assistants' backs were turned - but no one would read them again now, or properly, and I'd get overwhelmed by a sense of the thingness of them killing off the potential of the brilliant contents.

There was one lighter moment: when I rang Liverpool Blackwell's to ask how many they'd sold of one issue, the manager said, None. But she couldn't send them back to me: they'd had every single copy stolen. Well, I chose to believe her, anyway, and to think that those contents had gone winging their way into the world, slipping the material structures of commerce, and into people's conciousness...
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