Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Are Books Dead?

I apologise. Yesterday I did a funny little Style Icons post about two of our leading political ladies, Julia Gillard and Carla Bruni, and what they do and don't have in common. (Both favour form-fitting suits. Both eschew sartorial fussiness. And Carla is reportedly a big proponent of the power of pelvic exercises. However, I can't say for sure whether our Jules is. Only her partner Tim and possibly her sexy personal bodyguard know that secret.) Anyhow, after downloading a particularly intriguing image of our Jules, strange things started happing on my laptop. Files disappeared. Entire paragraphs flashed like lights on Times Square. Terrified of the dreaded 'V' word (and passing it onto you lovely readers), I immediately deleted the post. It was too late. The laptop is now in the Apple hospital having a triple heart bypass, and I am using an old MacBook and an archaic Safari browser. Which doesn't support Blogger.

But I'm persevering because I want to tell you about the significance of this week. March 1st  is World Book Day. It's the biggest literary celebration of its kind, and is designated by UNESCO as a world-wide celebration of books, reading and stories of all forms. More than 100 countries mark the date. I'm very proud of those countries. More should do it.

I grew up in a house full of books. Because my brother and I read so fast my frugal parents (who were both teachers) thought it a waste to buy books for us and told us to go and get a library card. We duly did what we were told. It was the start of a love affair with books, bookshops and libraries that has lasted 30 years. Last night I told my partner that if a bushfire came up the mountain, I would leave everything except my beloved books. Books are the one thing you should always save.

I spent most of last year lamenting the slow death of books in this, the iPad-and-Kindle age. Judging by the number of Google hits on the phrase "Are books dead?" (11 million and counting), many others did too. During a moment of literary lamentation, a wise and famous writer challenged me by asking "Well, what is a book anyway? Is it its body? Or its soul?"Well, I'm old-fashioned girl and I think books need a body. Just as humans need their spines to live and move, so, too, do books. An e-book can still be a great read (and like many I love the convenience of iPads), but a book with a jacket and pages and that papery smell of promise... now that is a beautiful thing. That, my dear friends, is a book. A soul without a body is a mere ghost of its former self.

Curiously, many people seem to think the same way. Last Christmas, many bookshops had their best sales season ever. My favourite bookshop, Avenue in Albert Park, sold more copies of my books than at any other time. I was as puzzled as you are. What does it possibly all mean? Well, I think it means that many of us are trying to save books from being endangered. From sinking into oblivion. We are stock-piling our stories – just like Carlos Ruiz Zafon's celebrated library in The Shadow of the Wind.

Sadly I fear it's too little, too late. The end of the book might be nearer than we think. One newspaper believes there will be no books left at all by 2020. None. And I admit that it's easy to see how e-books will win the reading war. 

And so I say this to you all. Read. Read. Read. Or as my Italian teacher used to say "Leggi! Leggi! Leggi!" Buy books. Download the e version if you have to, but don't discount the paper versions either. Embrace books. Remember how wonderful they are. For I am afraid there will come a time when most of us will stop reading them completely. When we will be distracted by other things. Such as Twitter. And gossip sites. And the Oscars. And life. Left for dead, books will disappear. And some of the world's greatest stories will then be lost forever.

"The art of reading is slowly dying. Great readers are becoming more scarce by the day..." 
– Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind.

There is a wonderful game lots of people are now playing called Page 61. You pick up a book, flick to page 61 and read the fifth sentence down. I loved reading some of the discoveries, such as:

"Great elephants!" said Gandalf. "You are not yourself this morning! You have not dusted the mantelpiece!" (From The Annotated Hobbit)
In later life, Dottie had a dog called Woodrow Wilson." (From The Uncollected Dorothy Parker)

I was quietly thrilled to see one of my books mentioned on a Page 61 website. The Page 61/Fifth Line was: "And, perhaps, also for their souls". It made me quiet for a moment or two. But then when I picked up my nearest book a few minutes ago – an old, much-loved dictionary that I still refer to – and saw what the fifth line on page 61 was – 
bibliophile   n. book lover 

I was moved beyond words.

"To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul" – Cicero

I agree Cicero. I agree.

The above images are from one of my favourite libraries, a private library on the island of Nantucket in the US. Designed by my favourite book-loving architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, the entire house is white – and I mean everything is white, from the stairs to the living room. The blank canvas was an intentional design move. Jacobsen and the owner felt that the books were the most important things in the house, and as such they were given first priority. The minimalist, all-white backdrop offered a kind of gallery for their literary beauty. Now, the only colours in the house are the bright tones of all the spines. Truly lovely, don't you think? 


  1. Thank you for this glorious beginning to my day! We are in the middle of a big remodel project—turning my kitchen and dining room into a kitchen and library! and most of my books are packed away. Can't wait to have my old friends close to hand. BTW I call books friends with spines!

  2. "Don't get me wrong, I'm open to constructive criticism - and I do receive it regularly, believe me."
    Page 61 of Women of Letters!!!!
    I do not have a kindle, I do not read e-books I do not intend to!
    I imagine it would be handy when you are travelling but I cannot think that a kindle on the bedside table would hold the same excitement as the pile of books as each night I run my finger down their spines and decide....ah you will be the one tonight!
    Julienne xxx

  3. "If there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having."
    Page 61 of La Vie Parisienne.

    No, I believe that e-books and real books will co-exist with each other. Nothing can replace the physicality of paper and spine. Story and its physical manifestation are all part of the whole.
    This so reminds me of that old chestnut debate topic "The Novel is dead" which of course begged the question of which novel one was referring to!

  4. Anton has left a new comment on your post "Are Books Dead?":

    I think the novel in paper form is being seriously challenged but publishers are fighting back by putting more thought into cover design. The coffee table book or any book containing illustrations or photos will survive for a lot longer in my opinion. I hate reading magazines online and I can't imagine I would enjoy looking at art, fashion. interior or photography books on a ipad etc. Books are also a part of my interior design look. I buy novels on my kindle because they are cheaper than hard copy and I usually only read novels once.

  5. I agree with Claire that e-books and real books will sit side by side..

    When I think of all the places I sit and read a book I can't imagine doing the same with an i-pad or kindle


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