Long live the book

"I'm happy not to be speaking on the death of the book . . . again," said Robert Darnton, cultural historian and director of Harvard University Library, at Unesco's Focus 2011 conference. Every year, he added, more books are published than the year before - on just one day in 2010, 1 October, 800 new titles came out. Not that Darnton's audience needed much convincing.

The authors, journalists, publishers and librarians who gathered in Monza, Italy, to discuss the future of the book were all keen to see writing and reading survive. They were equally determined not to repeat the mistakes of the music industry by panicking about the dawn of the digital age.

The optimists argue that new technologies rarely kill older ones: the cinema didn't finish off the play; video games haven't bankrupted Hollywood.
On the pessimists' side, however, are compelling questions over how writers will earn a living in a world where so much content is given away for free. "You'll turn art into a pastime," observed Antonio Skármeta, the author of Il Postino. "People wouldn't steal a frozen chicken in a supermarket, but they wouldn't flinch from illegal downloading."

It's clear that publishers can no longer ignore the increasing availability of information on the web. Only 13 per cent of books have been digitised so far, but that figure is rising rapidly. As the schoolteacher Esther Wojcicki pointed out, her students in the US expect to have text and pictures at their fingertips; their attitude led her to join the board of the Creative Commons foundation, which offers authors several grades of "licence" to protect their work online. The hope is that would-be thieves will be encouraged to attribute content, rather than lift it wholesale. Creators, meanwhile, give out "tasters" in the hope of converting consumers into customers.

For a few speakers, however, texts aren't available freely enough. The MIT researcher Richard Stallman, effortlessly multilingual and extravagantly bearded, distributed leaflets on the evils of ebooks (stallman.org/articles/ebooks.pdf), pointing out you never "own" one in quite the same way as a paper book - providers can alter the book after you have bought it.

A replay of Fahrenheit 451 would be a damn sight easier in an ebook world.


Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia