Many thanks for your emails – no, I haven’t gone away, or given up! Far from it – I’ve been lying low because I now have a monthly column in the UK’s leading old book magazine, Book and Magazine Collector. It starts this April and I’ll be putting an edited version of it here each month – please leave your comments below.
I’ve touched on this month’s topic before but it’s worth revisiting. In fact at the moment it’s the only thing that matters…
A hundred years ago this little paperback was on the counter of The Waverley Book Store, an Edinburgh antiquarian bookshop run by Robert M. Williamson.
He’d been a dealer for 30 years when he wrote these wonderful reminiscences about the book world. It is full of his love of books and his tales of thrilling auctions, stupendous finds and undersold bargains make for mouth watering reading today.
It must have been irresistible at the time, too, certainly for one particular customer. On the morning of June 12th, 1908 a Mr Charles Spackman walked in and browsed the stock. At the counter the bold and fashionable design of Bits From An Old Bookshop caught his eye and he added it to his pile. A century later it turned up in a south coast bookshop and the joys of ownership began again when I found it, along with some little slips of paper inside: Spackman’s book plate, a snipped out obituary of Williamson and the dated delivery label from The Waverley Book Store. Taken together they provide concrete evidence of a book collector’s proud memory of meeting the author and of a happy moment in the world of old books.
I’m a book collector and I know a treasure when I see one. This book will be on my shelves until I die. Until recently we could say with complete confidence that it would then pass safely into the hands of another collector but unfortunately I’m not so sure. I love old books, and so do you, but the cosy old world of cosy old books is heading for a showdown, a title fight to the death that has already begun. A slick silicon upstart with warm electric blood is gunning for books and if it wins the war our lives will never be the same again. The story now is not bits from a bookshop; it’s bits from a computer, the bits and bytes that might well kill paper books forever.
The history of books is long but astonishingly uneventful. The codex format, modern-looking books with pages rather than a long scroll, was established 2000 years ago. For the first 500 years professional scribes and illustrators copied out books by hand until a technological marvel called the printing press came along. A decade ago along came the internet, and once again nothing much happened. All the net did was change the people involved and move the stock from high street to store room. Big deal. Books survived it all because books have a special, unique status. And no wonder: paper books have conquered continents, recorded dreams, toppled governments and inspired generations. They have been, without doubt, the single most respected man-made objects ever created – until now.
Books are fast becoming second best. Gutenberg’s press just sped up the production of the same old thing; this time we’ve made factories full of robots to snap together something very different: ebooks. The next decade will be the most important one in the two thousand year history of the book. Now, for the first time ever, the book itself is under threat. Over the next ten years the public will be asked to choose which we want, carbon or silicon, paper or screens. Ebooks are in their infancy but screens have won the first round and we may have already reached peak book. Open the newspaper and it’s all bad news: teenagers don’t read, Google have scanned everything and schools are dumping their textbooks.
Book collecting will only survive if new collectors take it up and they will only do that if they have some sort of relationship with books. Will the generation born with a silver screen in their hands ever pick up an old book? Will our scanned in libraries be shut down to save money when the books are all on line, free, forever? Will governments push up the price of paper with green taxes and drive reluctant readers to the screens? All these issues and many more will be raised as we race through the decade and the future of our hobby depends on the answers.
Ten years from now Bits From An Old Bookshop will have been captured and changed from paper into fizzing electrons and if the public are happy about that then we will have lost the battle. When there’s nobody left to appreciate a binding or care about condition or pay extra for a first edition then our books will become worthless clutter like shellac 78s and worn out clothes.
On the other hand the future isn’t written yet. More education means more culture which means more book collecting. Let the screens spread! Let a cheap, durable sliver of silicon find its way to every home and hut on the planet so that a billion new readers will one day pick up a real book, an old book, and think – ‘I wonder.’ If that’s the case then ebooks could lead to a golden age of book collecting where limited supply pushes up prices and a new army of collectors treasures books like never before.
And it all depends on what happens this decade…
Our generation of collectors has an important part to play in this. Are you worried about ebooks? What should we do while the public decide whether they still want to bother with paper? Please leave a comment below.