x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

This is a fine week to pick up a book - while you still can

Despite the popularity of e-books, nothing can replace the good old-fashioned printed tome.

Shred my parents' request for information on my whereabouts and drop it in the Cam.

Even the most enthusiastic fans of the book those words came from - and it's a sensational book - might, at a glance, struggle to identify them.

To mark International Book Week, celebrated every year during the third week of September, book lovers have developed a little online game: grab the book nearest to you, turn to page 52 and post the fifth sentence as your Facebook status. And don't mention the name of the book. I won't.

Readers, of course, don't need manufactured occasions or dates to remind them of their love of books. Online games such as this, like "books-to-read-before-you-die" lists and websites dedicated to vintage tomes, are helping prolong the life of the printed book in the face of the unstoppable migration towards tablets and other mobile devices.

But while batteries run out, books are resilient and will, we can hope, not disappear without a fight.

And isn't it our duty keep them in circulation for as long as possible before they go the way of vinyl, the tape recorder and VHS?

Their sheer numbers are cause for joy. In 2004, Google began The Google Books Library Project, a seemingly Quixotic effort to digitise all published books in all languages that are currently in existence.

Streamlining a near-impossible task into a manageable one, Google announced this in a blog back in 2010: "After we exclude serials, we can finally count all the books in the world. There are 129,864,880 of them. At least until Sunday." Thousands more, millions even, will have been added since then. And it is quite simply impossible to estimate how many individual books exist.

Increasingly, new titles will be released digitally. For that we have technology to thank, or blame. Amazon in particular finds itself in a peculiar position. On the one hand it has delivered millions of books from its inventories to readers around the world. But the rise of e-book readers, led by its very own Kindle and Apple's iPad, has seen the downloading market, sheared of the costs of printing and delivery, skyrocket. The print industry, in the long term stands no chance in the face of such competition.

So will the printed book die? Will it, like newspapers perhaps, endure despite repeated last rites? Sadly for those who love the feel and smell of a new book, the numbers will drop, and rapidly. Many books will no longer get new editions - and that is all the more reason to cherish the millions still out there.

Books are romantic where tablets are functional. Books make for wonderful presents. Books influence cinema and music far more than the reverse. (The opening line of this column comes from a book that will very soon be adapted into a major Hollywood production.)

The next generation or two will probably live with both the old and new formats. But, ultimately, the future looks bleak for paper books.

In his classic novel Fahrenheit 451, sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury described a world in which books are outlawed and whole buildings that held them are burnt down. While this was seen as an Orwellian commentary on censorship, the author was in fact foreseeing a future in which people prefer to watch television on giant, wall-mounted screens and listen to radio on "Seashell" earphones, over reading books and enjoying the company of others. Sounds familiar?

In his lifetime Bradbury championed books. "I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it's better than college," he said. "People should educate themselves - you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I'd written 1,000 stories."

We may not live in a world where books are pulped (yet!), but we may soon be lamenting their demise.

Quick, grab the book nearest to you. And read it.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_