x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The magic of a good book, lost in digital translation

The fundamental misconception undermining the e-book is the assumption that a book is no more than words.

It was said of the former British prime minister John Major, an otherwise somewhat dull and colourless man, that his great pleasure each night was retiring to bed with a well-thumbed Trollope. In these days of the Amazon Kindle - and its potential nemesis, we are told, the new Apple iPad - it is hard to see how Mr Major could indulge his passion for the great Victorian novelist and chronicler of Barsetshire.

Having done its calculations at the end of last year's festive gift-buying season, Amazon announced that e-books had outsold paper ones for the first time. The company took great pleasure in this news, and it's not hard to work out why. First, pinging an e-book down the wire - a process in which the purchaser does what little work is required - is a lot less expensive than paying staff to parcel up and dispatch the printed version. Second, when you download an e-book from Amazon you're not actually "buying" anything; you're merely leasing the right to read it. The Kindle software comes with DRM (digital rights management) so restrictive that the small print reads like an employment contract with the CIA.

Supporters of the iPad point out that its book-reading software is open source, without DRM, and in this they are correct; but they also miss the point. The fundamental misconception undermining the e-book is the assumption that a book is no more than words. This is why those who share my distaste for the e-book reader and all its works are dismissed as Luddites. The e-book, the argument goes, is part of a natural progression from Cicero's faithful scribe Tiro with his wax tablet and stylus, via Shakespeare with his parchment, quill and ink; just as recorded music has moved from Edison's phonograph cylinders, to shellac discs, to vinyl albums, to CDs and now to MP3 downloads. The message matters, not the medium.

But a good book is so much more than that. It is an artefact, something you hold and turn over in your hands, marvelling at the wonder of it. And there is a ritual. First you read the back cover, with its brief, one-sentence reviews of the author's previous work. Then you read the inside back cover, a short biography of the author. Then the tension mounts as you turn to the inside front cover, with its synopsis of the plot. An added bonus may be a page of judiciously chosen quotations from classic works, poems or even songs, which should give you a flavour of what is to come. These are the essential hors d'oeuvres, the amuse-bouche, before you get to the meat.

The magic and romance of a good book are wonderfully evoked in two great novels by the Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon - The Shadow of the Wind, and its prequel, The Angel's Game. While the characters are rich and complex, the true heroes are not people, but two places in the narrow, cobblestoned, gaslit streets behind Las Ramblas in early 20th-century Barcelona: the Sempere & Sons bookshop and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

In the former, countless generations of the Sempere family have been guardians of the treasury of literature, living in penury because they would rather give a good book away than deny it to a hungry reader with no money. In the latter, behind an imposing oak door lies a massive labyrinth of tunnels lined with shelves containing untold millions of neglected books; a chosen few people judged worthy of the honour are invited to select one, which they must then guard and keep safe for the rest of their lives.

Zafon's motif is that a book is a repository for the dreams and soul of its author, and of everyone who reads it. That doesn't work with a Kindle; it doesn't have a soul. But there is more at stake here than just magic and romance. Enthusiasts of the e-book argue that it will democratise the world of literature and cleanse it of elitism. If by this they mean what I fear they mean, then I am happy to remain an elitist. Currently only a few people possess the mixture of wealth, egotistic self-regard and literary incompetence that makes vanity publishing both necessary and possible. When every hitherto mute, inglorious Wolfe or De Lillo is able to publish his Great American Novel with the click of a mouse, the consequences will be too awful to contemplate.

If you doubt this, take a trip into the blogosphere, where anarchy rules. There are gems there, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find these specks of sense in a vast ocean of inanity. It has given birth to the "citizen journalist", as inherently preposterous a concept as the citizen brain surgeon, citizen flat-race jockey or citizen astronaut. The result is that genuine quality journalism has been devalued to the extent that it is in grave peril, both online and in print.

Literature, like journalism, is a profession; it must be learnt, it must be practised and it must be remunerated. More than 250 years ago the wise Dr Johnson observed: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." The old boy wasn't wrong. In our world as in his, in literature as in journalism, you get what you pay for. And if you pay nothing, you get - well, work it out for yourself. randerson@thenational.ae