Friday, 31 July 2009

update: July 2009

# of books read in July: 7

Cumulative total: 36

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)
7. The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)
8. The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)
9. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)
10. A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)
11. The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)
12. Le CV de Dieu (Jean-Louis Fournier)
13. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)
14. The Music of Silence (Andrea Bocelli)
15. Love (Toni Morrison)
16. Class: The Secret Diary of a Teacher in Turmoil (Jane Beaton)
17. The Wives of Bath (Susan Swan)
18. The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)
19. The Queen and I (Sue Townsend)
20. Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)
21. Daisy Miller (Henry James)
22. The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton Ellis)
23. Gods Behaving Badly (Marie Phillips)
24. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
25. The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
26. The British Museum is Falling Down (David Lodge)
27. them (Joyce Carol Oates)
28. Flaubert's Parrot (Julian Barnes)
29. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (Sue Townsend)
30. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
31. Tears of Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath (Michael and Elizabeth Norman)
32. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)
33. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
34. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
35. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
36. The Nigger of the Narcissus (Joseph Conrad)

Average number of books per month: 5.1

% by male authors: 56%
% by female authors: 44%

The Nigger of the Narcissus (Joseph Conrad)

  --The blurb--
"The book draws on Conrad's own experience of twenty years as a master mariner; the Narcissus is sailing to London with two new hands, Wait and Donkin, and these two test the crew by Wait almost dying, and Donkin by attempting to raise the crew to mutiny. Regarded as Conrad's first masterpiece, the book is a disturbing and powerful portrait of the sea and sea-life."

--The review--
The censorship and alteration of already-published works is something that is rife in an increasingly politically correct world, with writers such as Enid Blyton and Hergé (author of the Tintin comics) being perhaps the most famously hit. It was therefore the apparent lack of censorship in the title of this work by Joseph Conrad that causes it to draw so much attention to itself on the shelf. Why is such a title allowed to slip through unscathed when many other less offensive texts are not? (Not that I'm pro-censorship, you understand.)

It is possible, of course, that the title's implicit racism was intended ironically by Conrad; however, given his track record (whereby he was accused of racism after the release of Heart of Darkness), it is equally possible that he was sincere. This is perhaps something that readers and critics will never be able to resolve, but it at least perhaps contributes to the generation of debate and to an increase in people picking up the novel when they may not have otherwise done. In any case, Conrad keeps the reader hanging for a while, not even mentioning the nigger in question until well after the first chapter has been and gone. Instead he chooses to concentrate on describing the ship, its travellers, and the beginning of its voyage. This can make for dense reading, particularly if one is not too interested in nautical history (it's rather comparable to trying to plough through Hemingway when one has no interest in jungle-based combat, and, again, seafaring).

However, while Conrad can be vague at times (it was difficult to really build up a picture of the other characters or form opinions of them), he builds up tension with smartness and subtlety, deliberately leaving readers in doubt as to what he really thinks. As with the works of Steinbeck, it is difficult to pronounce on who is intended as good and who is intended as evil, and what the story's underlying moral is (assuming that there is one). This sidestepping can leave the reader feeling a little flat at the end of the story: left with a Milligan-esque "I told you I was ill" kind of feeling, there is little else of substance with which to make any sort of judgement.

While Conrad does show some strong moments in his powers of description at times, on the whole the work did seem a little insipid, despite its occasional cleverness. It is perhaps more advisable, then, to kick off with some of Conrad's more established works, such as Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, in order to make a better informed judgement on the author's alleged prowess.

Other works by Joseph Conrad
Almayer's Folly (1895)
An Outcast of the Islands (1896)
Heart of Darkness (1899)
Lord Jim (1900)
The Inheritors (1901; with Ford Maddox Ford)
Typhoon (1902)
Romance (1903; with Ford Maddox Ford)
Nostromo (1904)
The Secret Agent (1907)
Under Western Eyes (1911)
Chance (1913)
Victory (1915)
The Shadow of Line (1917)
The Arrow of Gold (1919)
The Rescue (1920)
The Nature of a Crime (1923; with Ford Maddox Ford)
The Rover (1923)
Suspense (1925)

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)

--The blurb--
"A student from Boston wins a guest editorship on a national magazine, and finds a new world at her feet. Her New York life is crowded with possibilities, so the choice of future is overwhelming. She is faced with the perennial problems of morality, behaviour and identity."

--The review--
Upon reaching university, I quickly found that I was an intrinsic reader: being only mildly interested in background information, I much preferred the sounds of the words in my mouth and ears, the look of them on the page, and the overall beauty of the work itself. By the end of my degree, my patience with symbolism (whether imagined by overzealous lecturers, or real) was wearing thin. It was this lack of tolerance for extrinsic reading that partly stopped me from pursuing postgraduate studies in English literature.

However, for some authors and their respective works, extrinsic reading simply cannot be helped. It is extremely difficult to read the works of Sylvia Plath (and, by default, those of Ted Hughes) without deferring to the experiences and circumstances which inspired them. However, this is perhaps more applicable to their poetry, with it being quite possible to read The Bell Jar without knowing any of Plath's history. Knowing it, though, means that it is no surprise that the main character's descent into mental illness is realistically painted, being gradual and speckled with very real paranoia and depression.

While the novel is overall rather pretentious, and perhaps would have been better without the inclusion of Doreen, Esther's sexually liberated best friend, as it seemed like Plath was trying too hard to reinforce cultural elements that would have been more of a novelty at the time, there are still plenty of reasons why The Bell Jar is worth attention. As well as Plath successfully sustaining the novel's intensity in a very controlled way, the ending is also sublime and appropriate, as is her strikingly poetic description of the landscape, which is utilised from the very beginning.

This novel is certainly not perfect - as well as the above criticisms, I would have preferred it if Plath had left the reader to decipher her reasons for choosing the title by themselves (as Rossetti does for her poems), rather than name-dropping it at every opportunity. However, it offers a rare and realistic insight into mental illness - though it is perhaps the imagery and eloquence used by Plath that make the book a classic.

Other works by Sylvia Plath
The Colossus and other Poems (1960)
Ariel (1965)
Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968)
Crossing the Water (1971)
Winter Trees (1972)
Letters Home (1975)
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)

--The blurb--
"Margaret Atwood's chilling new novel Oryx and Crake moves beyond the futuristic fantasy of her 1985 bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale to an even more dystopian world, a world where language--and with it anything beyond the merest semblance of humanity--has almost entirely vanished.
Snowman may be the last man on earth, the only survivor of an unnamed apocalypse. Once he was Jimmy, a member of a scientific elite; now he lives in bitter isolation and loneliness, his only pleasure the watching of old films on DVD. His mind moves backwards and forwards through time, from an agonising trawl through memory to relive the events that led up to sudden catastrophe (most significantly the disappearance of his mother and the arrival of his mysterious childhood companions Oryx and Crake, symbols of the fractured society in which Snowman now finds himself, to the horrifying present of genetic engineering run amok. His only witnesses, eager to lap up his testimony, are "Crakers", laboratory creatures of varying strengths and abilities, who can offer little comfort. Gradually the reasons behind the disaster begin to unfold as Snowman undertakes a perilous journey to the remains of the bubble-dome complex where the sinister Paradice Project collapsed and near-global devastation began."

--The review--
The strength of a good dystopian writer is to seize on a hot topic with which current readers will identify, and turn it into something even more horrible; a very good dystopian writer will, however, not only do this, but also manage to resonate with generations to come.

Ray Bradbury is a particularly chilling exponent of this format, with his descriptions of a nation consumed by media being as relevant today as they were in the 1950s (perhaps even more so). Margaret Atwood's track record, too, has her down as being fairly successful at this, with the attempts by the totalitarian state in her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale to dumb down its citizens to such a degree that they wouldn't question the state's equally dumb decisions being something that still sits scarily well today for many British readers in particular. It perhaps goes without saying that to try to predict the ongoing relevance of Oryx and Crake as the years roll on before they've even happened yet is both presumptuous and precarious; however, with the novel being based around something that's currently a very hot topic indeed in climate change, she at least already has one box ticked, especially since this isn't something that will disappear from the public consciousness anytime soon.

The start of the novel (perhaps even the entire first half) is really quite bewildering, with the reader being thrown in in medias res and being left to work out the back story for themselves as Atwood takes us through proceedings in a completely assorted, non-chronological manner. Throwing the traditional Three Unities to the wind by changing time, place and action frequently, Atwood certainly makes your brain work. As well as working quite well as a horror movie, there are also plenty of James Bond elements in the eponymous characters of Oryx and Crake themselves, which make this a tense and action-packed novel. Even at the moments of eerie calm, when Snowman is left alone with the Children of Crake, the atmosphere is still highly charged, with constant melancholic reminders of a dream future that failed.

The main elements of the novel are all tied up by the book's end, but only very loosely, leaving Atwood room for a sequel (well, since it's set both before and after the events covered in Oryx and Crake, Atwood herself cleverly refers to it as a 'simultaneouel'), The Year of the Flood, which is out next month. It is perhaps testament to Atwood's imagination and flair that I am looking forward intensely to getting hold of this sequel/prequel. However, I do worry about Atwood becoming pigeonholed into this genre of writing. - she is worth more than the label of a one-trick pony.

Other novels by Margaret Atwood
The Edible Woman (1969)
Surfacing (1972)
Lady Oracle (1976)
Life Before Man (1979)
Bodily Harm (1981)
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
Cat's Eye (1988)
The Robber Bride (1993)
Alias Grace (1996)
The Blind Assassin (2000)
The Penelopiad (2005)

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)

--The blurb--
"“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place ...With us it ain’t like that.We got a future ... because I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you.”

George and Lennie are migrant American labourers –the one alert and protective and the other strong, stupid and potentially dangerous. This is the powerful story of their relationship and their dreams of finding a more stable and less lonely way of life."

--The review--
It is arguably the job of an author to bring to life a world that is previously unknown to their readers, and yet the scene that opens Of Mice and Men is perhaps more universal than this: the paradisiacal setting of American countryside is awash with rich colour and is almost synaesthetic in its ability to make words morph into textures and sounds and breaths of sunny breeze. Steinbeck then goes on, however, to narrow down the experience and fuse the pan-global landscape with the more specific toils and backgrounds of the two main characters.

Starting off very slowly and languorously, Steinbeck allows the reader to savour every word and moment before taking them on a rollercoaster of increasingly serious events whereby George and Lennie are under ever-more serious threats to their jobs, dreams and lives. Steinbeck successfully manages to provoke pathos in the reader towards each of these characters, though for very different reasons, and keeps the plot incredibly tight and concise, which is perhaps the main contributor to its success.

The novel's ending is both finished and unfinished, leaving the reader stunned and with many unanswered questions about the nature of friendship. Is the previously paradisiacal arena now just a personal hell? And does George's final action make him the greatest of enemies or the greatest of friends? In addition to this, the novella raises the issue throughout of how mental illness is, was and should be treated, and it is perhaps Steinbeck's treatment of these timeless themes that reveals the key to the enduring success of his work. It perhaps proves that an author's job is therefore not entirely to bring a different world to their readers, but rather to combine it with themes that are familiar across humanity in order to create a truly great story that echoes down the ages.

Other works by John Steinbeck (selection)
Cup of Gold (1927)
The Red Pony (1933)
Tortilla Flat (1935)
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
The Pearl (1947)
East of Eden (1952)

Monday, 20 July 2009

Tears of Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (Michael & Elizabeth Norman)

--The blurb--
"For the first four months of 1942, U.S., Filipino, and Japanese soldiers fought what was America’s first major land battle of World War II, the battle for the tiny Philippine peninsula of Bataan. It ended with the surrender of 76,000 Filipinos and Americans, the single largest defeat in American military history. The defeat, though, was only the beginning, as Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman make dramatically clear in this powerfully original book. From then until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the prisoners of war suffered an ordeal of unparalleled cruelty and savagery: forty-one months of captivity, starvation rations, dehydration, hard labor, deadly disease, and torture—far from the machinations of General Douglas MacArthur. The Normans bring to the story remarkable feats of reportage and literary empathy. Their protagonist, Ben Steele, is a figure out of Hemingway: a young cowboy turned sketch artist from Montana who joined the army to see the world. Juxtaposed against Steele’s story and the sobering tale of the Death March and its aftermath is the story of a number of Japanese soldiers. The result is an altogether new and original World War II book: it exposes the myths of military heroism as shallow and inadequate; it makes clear, with great literary and human power, that war causes suffering for people on all sides."

--The review--
As time, resources, diversions and worries seem to hurtle at lightning speed towards an ever-changing future, it is perhaps evident that in the kerfuffle to keep up with what's new, some old memories may be forgotten. Thanks to this book, however, the Bataan Death March is one of those events that now won't be. Michael and Elizabeth Norman weave reportage and history with extraordinary skill, and their interest in and passion for their subject constantly shines through. It is grotesque in its description of the soldiers' treatment, injuries and disease, but this is utterly necessary to convey the full horror of the experience, and it goes a long way to making the reader genuinely care for the fates of the servicemen.

However, the focus is not, as one might expect, on making the Americans look like heroes against the demon Japanese. The Japanese are equally well-represented as genuine human beings and the chronicling of these events makes it clear that this is a world suffering, an indiscriminate suffering, borne equally by Filipinos and British as much as by Americans and Japanese. Woven with this is the more detailed story of Ben Steele, a survivor (albeit just barely) of the death march who is still alive today. This is an eventually successful strategy, though it takes some time to pick up speed; interestingly, you only feel to begin that he is the main character when flashbacks to his pre-war life on the Montana prairie start to decrease. This can perhaps be attributed to the novel's occasionally 'piecemeal' feeling, whereby the listing of events with little detail (especially in the runup to the Bataan surrender) can start to make your eyes go a little fuzzy and can make your mind start to wander. The jumping between characters also takes time to get used to, but ultimately enhances the book.

Beyond this, there were just two other areas that struck me as requiring improvement. One was the authors' apparent inability to use prepositions such as 'with' and 'that'; inclusion of these particles would have clarified many of their sentences, making them more fluid. This is also applicable to the couple's use of colons and semi-colons (or, rather, the lack of them). As a Brit, I also took issue with the rather American and sloppy title, "Tears of Darkness". It is explained very clearly at the start of the book that this is a translation of the Japanese word 'anrui', which means exactly this, but surely it would have been more original, and indeed more appropriate, to give the book's title as "Anrui", rather than the more generic one that was eventually chosen? Nevertheless, these are superficial concerns that did not stop me from being moved by the book and finding it a significant read. It shamed me that despite my lengthy studies of World War Two between the ages of 14 and 18, I had not come across these events before. Michael and Elizabeth Norman successfully illuminate and humanise a hidden area of history, and bring to light the many forgotten soldiers who lost their lives in the struggle. We should remember them.

Other works by Elizabeth M Norman
Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam (1990)
We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese (2000)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)

--The blurb--
"‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt, the richest cotton planter in the Mississippi Delta, is about to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday. His two sons have returned home for the occasion: Gooper, his wife and children, Brick, an ageing football hero who has turned to drink, and his feisty wife Maggie. As the hot summer evening unfolds, the veneer of happy family life and Southern gentility gradually slips away as unpleasant truths emerge and greed, lies, jealousy and suppressed sexuality threaten to reach boiling point. Made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a masterly portrayal of family tensions and individuals trapped in prisons of their own making."

--The review--
In Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, the focus is on Laura, a main character with physical illness, a sensitive nature, and a fascination with small glass models. There are outcasts in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof too, but they are not the epicentre; it is equally complex, though differently, and equally haunting, though differently also.

It is not the outcasts themselves (chiefly Brick's wife Maggie and Big Daddy's wife) who form the centre of the drama, but rather the drama that is created by their interactions with other characters. Williams is a master of atmosphere and of the creation of larger-than-life characters; even weeks after reading, their personalities, right down to their accents, body language and tones of voice, stay inside the reader's head. The play is occasionally romantic and occasionally tragic, but it is laden most of all with histrionics, melodrama, and intensity, and it is this that engenders the play's complexity, as well as its lingering after-taste in the reader's mind, particularly due to the great humanity of the relationships that are depicted.

Interestingly, in some editions, two separate endings are provided for readers' perusal. One, of course, is the original ending written by Williams; the other is an ending that was co-written by a theatre director, Elia Kazan, for the play's 1955 première in New York. Without revealing too much, Williams' ending seems preferable: less predictable and obvious, more subversive, and with a stronger closing statement. The director's ending also unfortunately makes use of the most infuriating aspect of Williams' play: the repetition of the play's title throughout the dialogue, which removes any opportunity for the reader to work out the connection for themselves, as well as just sounding corny. It is a great shame, because as demonstrated in The Glass Menagerie, Williams is also a master of metaphor, and what he realises in The Glass Menagerie that he apparently does not in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is that his audiences are intelligent enough to work these metaphors out for themselves.

Other works by Tennessee Williams
The Glass Menagerie (1944)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
The Rose Tattoo (1951)
Camino Real (1953)
Suddenly, Last Summer (1958)
Sweet Bird of Youth (1959)
The Night of the Iguana (1961)
Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1962)
A House Not Meant To Stand (1982)

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)

--The blurb--
"In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's classic, frightening vision of the future, firemen don't put out fires--they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury's vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal--a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. Fire Captain Beatty explains it this way, "Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs.... Don't give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy."
Guy Montag is a book-burning fireman undergoing a crisis of faith. His wife spends all day with her television "family", imploring Montag to work harder so that they can afford a fourth TV wall. Their dull, empty life sharply contrasts with that of his next-door neighbour Clarisse, a young girl thrilled by the ideas in books, and more interested in what she can see in the world around her than in the mindless chatter of the tube. When Clarisse disappears mysteriously, Montag is moved to make some changes, and starts hiding books in his home. Eventually, his wife turns him in, and he must answer the call to burn his secret cache of books. After fleeing to avoid arrest, Montag winds up joining an outlaw band of scholars who keep the contents of books in their heads, waiting for the time society will once again need the wisdom of literature."

--The review--
The canon of dystopian novels is generally distilled in the public consciousness to three novels: George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. However, there are many worthy others, including the works of HG Wells, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Centring on the theme of book burning (a subject familiar to any British history student born after about 1980 due to the prevalence of Nazi Germany in the syllabus), Bradbury takes the image further with a series of what-ifs, making soap operas more interactive and scary, and magnifying the populace that is already constantly plugged into MP3 players by extending this to include it as their source of news as well.

Scarily, the novel was written only in 1953, before the mass paranoia created by the red scare had taken full force, and before MP3 players had even been invented. It is this relevance and sense of prophecy, as with other dystopian novels, that ensures enduring success. Bradbury's style creeps up on you and intensifies as you read, making this a real page-turner. Even the characters that you only meet fleetingly have vivid personalities, meaning that the novel's cast is printed almost indelibly on the reader's consciousness. The plot is tightly sustained and remains accessible while still maintaining some details of complexity, making it not only a book that you'll race to finish, but a book that you want to return to as well. Haunting and enjoyable, and yet imbued with humanity, this is a readable and thought-provoking introduction to Ray Bradbury's work that deserves to be included more ostensibly in the list of must-read dystopian literature.

Other works by Ray Bradbury
The Martian Chronicles (1950)
Dandelion Wine (1957)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)
The Halloween Tree (1972)
Death is a Lonely Business (1985)
A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990)
Green Shadows, White Whale (1992)
From the Dust Returned (2001)
Let's All Kill Constance (2004)
Farewell Summer (2006)

Monday, 6 July 2009

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Going Digital

Last month, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he planned to save money for the state by making more text books available online in order to help keep pupils more up to date. There are many obvious benefits to this beyond the fiscal; as well as saving students' backs and shoulders, perhaps the days of not having the right edition of a text book will be gone, as information will be able to be updated automatically with greater ease (I'm sure we all remember lamenting the fact of school text books being out of date; indeed, even in the €18k per year per child school in which I teach, I still teach using text books from 2001).

It is at this point still unclear as to how this will work. Will it be something akin to the Gutenberg project or JSTOR, to which schools can subscribe in order to open up a wider variety of texts to their students? Or will schools subscribe on a text-by-text basis rather than to a database? (I think, sadly, that any idea of it being free is perhaps a pipe dream; the only reason why something like Gutenberg is available for free is due to the texts available being out of copyright, which text books will not be.) But regardless of how it will work, one needs to ask what such increasing digitisation means for the modern reader.

As someone who was still at university until quite recently, the benefits are manifold and ostensible. Alongside all of the reasons mentioned above, if the idea of making texts available to students through a wider database comes off (as opposed to schools choosing which individual texts they want to be made available to their students), then the days of having to pay for vital texts to be sent from other libraries may be over. As I mentioned here in June, I had to purchase a book that I wanted to help with my dissertation all the way from an American library that was clearing out its stock, because my university library didn't have it, and it would have cost the same amount of money, if not more, for it to be borrowed from another library and transported to the depths of the British West Country. Making such texts available on a database would mean that time and money could be saved for students worldwide. I was lucky enough after Exeter University to then attend Oxford University, which is home to the Bodleian library. As a legal deposit library, every book published in the UK is by law deposited there, so even if on occasion you had to wait a few days for a book to be transported from a mine in Sussex, you could be assured that you would get whatever it was you wanted eventually. Why shouldn't all students have a similar privilege in digital form?

So it is perhaps fairly clear, then, that going digital would benefit school and university students enormously, as well as the schools and universities themselves (this would also allow them to save on space, and to further protect valuable documents, which can be damaged by sunlight, fire or even by oils that occur naturally in human skin, as well as being susceptible to theft and accidental damage). As a teacher, I can also speak of my dismay at the capacity that some of these kids have to completely wreck a brand new book in the course of a few months; with digitisation, this possibility is also avoided (though with the new risk of susceptibility to hackers and crashes, I would also imagine that quite high backups and security would be required for such an online database). E-books can also have text highlighted and underlined to help the student with no damage, and text can be easily enlarged or differently coloured to help students with dyslexia or colour blindness. But that's the world of education - what of the ordinary reader? Where does digitisation leave them?

E-book readers are becoming increasingly popular; as well as the arguably most famous Amazon Kindle, there is also the Sony Reader, the eSlick, and the Samsung Papyrus. Additionally, as mobile phones become more sophisticated, applications for devices such as the iPhone can be downloaded to the handset that allow you to read books on the go. Newspapers are also highly digitised, with many if not all allowing you to read the paper completely online, whether this is for free or by way of a subscription. All of this together means that doomsaying rumours have been doing the rounds for some time, speculating about the future of good old-fashioned books and newspapers, and yet bookstores and libraries still exist, as do paper newspapers.

Even though I spent a good while earlier extolling the virtues of going digital for research purposes, I do believe that any rumour of the average book-reader having to resort completely to staring at a screen is unfounded. Why? Because humans are very physical beings, for a start: we like things to be tactile, and many book-lovers continue to report on the sensory experience of reading an actual book, whether it's the feel of the weight or shape in your hands, or whether it's the smell of the pages. Reading from a screen is also more tiring and damaging to the eyes than reading from a page, and going completely digital won't even assuage people's environmental concerns: while masses of paper would be saved, the resulting electricity that would need to be used to power e-book readers and computers, as well as the landfill that would result from when these things are thrown away to make way for newer models, would surely counteract any saving made when it comes to trees.

This is all without mentioning the aesthetic, and, more importantly, social aspects of possessing and sharing books. Nobody can deny that the sight of well-stocked bookshelves in a home adds character, whether the books are shiny and leather-bound or worn and battered; equally, would a book club be the same with some gadget freak piping up "oh, there's that bit on page 73 where...I'll just pull it up for you all on my Kindle", rather than pulling out the book in question and flipping through to find the right bit? The library is a social place too, remember. And let's not forget that people already spend enough time in front of a screen as it is, whether it's due to computer games, TV, chatting on MSN, or...blogging. Hmm. Do you think that's a hint to myself to get off this machine and go and finish my current read? I think so too.