Is Waterstones eating itself?

What good is an e-reader, without anything good to e-read?

It was depressing enough watching HMV cannibalise itself: devoting a mushrooming allotment of floor space to “devices” and “accessories”, without having to watch the nation’s premier bookseller do the same. Perusing the shelves in Waterstones (look, mum, no apostrophe!) this afternoon, I observed that one of the display tables had been pilfered from an Apple retail store, while another – pilfered, by the looks of it, from the now defunct Habitat – consisted of a collection of leather and plastic dust jackets, aimed at keeping safe the retailer’s bright new hope: the Amazon Kindle.

Being interested in books and harbouring a futile concern for their well-being, I knew this was coming. I was, am and will remain ambivalent about e-readers and what they mean for literature. (A question which is almost always subservient to the question of what they mean for “the industry”.) I await developments with great interest: by no means a technophobe, but certainly a bibliophile. What I found difficult to understand about the new arrangement was the weak defence made on behalf of books. Opposite the Kindle playground stood a bookshelf labelled “Beautiful Books”, presumably an argument about the desirability of paper-and-ink and the surrounding culture. In other words: the Luddite’s retort. The shelf held a series of ugly readers-digest-wouldn’t-even-go-there stocking-filler anthologies, making no strong claims for either beauty or books. And this to distract the endlessly distracted? Try again.

These books, great though they may be (I do not know, I suppose it depends how much you like crosswords), do not make an adequate riposte to the collection of proddable black mirrors jittering and flashing on the new display. A shelf stacked with books is both functional and aesthetic, furniture and form. It is an endless repository of colour, exploration and experience. The texts look fine on electronic devices, but as for the objects themselves? Most already look like they belong in a box labelled “80s” – along with a brick-sized mobile phone and a languid Betamax.

What would a world in which there were endless methods of consuming “content”, but hardly any “content” to consume, look like? In two words: Hong Kong. Nowhere on earth have I seen so many shop-floors dedicated to entertainment technology, with so few offering anything to play. Arguably, the piracy problem in China is not a question of morals, it is a question of taste, and the result of cynical business models. It is equally hard to find Bach’s cello suites as it is Sasha Grey’s Homo Erectus. Both are best discovered in pop-up stalls and underground markets around Sham Shui Po or Causeway Bay. Culture in China – like pornography – is an underground affair.

We are all responsible for the downward trend. In being so eager to sup the latest nectar from the Apple tree, we have failed to see that devices which play “your favourite tunes” or “the latest Hollywood blockbuster” are predicated on a vibrant, credible and worthwhile culture to begin with. If creativity is not nurtured, valued and appreciated where it matters most, we will all have been accessories to the fact. And all those devices flooding the loft will be evidence of our misplaced passions.

Five minutes’ walk from the Waterstones in question lies the Cheapside Daunt Books: a store whose anti-“stack ‘em high” policy has worked wonders, turning over a profit of £912,966 last year. It might be hard for Londoners to imagine a world in which Foyles or Daunt Books do not exist, but spare a thought for the rest of the country’s cities and towns, where it is not uncommon to find Waterstones is the only source of serious books left (library budgets, lest we forget, are being evaluated quicker than you can say tighten your belt). Failure here, is not desirable. The company’s flagship store on Piccadilly Circus has recently been taken over by the team from Nottingham town centre, about whom Daunt has said: “You walk into that store and you say ‘My Lord’ this is a very good example of a shop that has been given autonomy and knows how to get on with it.”

“Amazon are a fact of life,” he continues. “I use Amazon. But we do something else.”

Clearly that something else needs fine-tuning in this particular branch, but with Daunt at the helm – his enthusiasm and love of books, is highly infectious – my hope is that we can extend the franchise, not diminish it. Below are a handful of titles published this year, selected by Nico Taylor, book designer at HarperCollins.

Kimberly's Capital Punishment by Richard Milward. Faber, 2012. Design: Faber.

"Perfectly simple and bold design that does a great job of subtly suggesting the raw and surreal contents within."

The Book Of Life by Stuart Nadler. Picador, 2012. Design: David Pearson.

"David Pearson, of Penguin Great Ideas fame, produces another striking and elegant typographic cover."

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. Granta, 2012. Design: Peter Mendelsund.

"Such an aesthetically pleasing cover with its vibrant colour palette and cut out paper design which can't help but beg you to pick it up, and in an age when some are starting to see book covers as just flat pixels we see on screens, this can only be a good thing."

The Creator by Guorun Eva Minervudottir. Granta, 2012. Design: Fuel.

"Under the art direction of Michael Salu, Granta have been consistently producing fantastically unique and striking covers for the past year or so and this is no exception with its slightly sinister marriage between title and image."

E-readers jittering and flashing at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Picture: Taschen
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Paleoart: the evolution of dinosaur paintings, from watercolours to Soviet visions

Zoë Lescaze's book is a hulking great sauropod.

In 1830, an English geologist named Henry Thomas De la Beche painted a watercolour of Dorset. The scene it portrayed was not a conventional one. Cows and green fields were notable by their absence. Instead, palm trees sprouted from otherwise bare lumps of rock. Shark-like reptiles with bristling teeth and giant eyes swam in a sinister, monster-filled sea. Overhead there soared strange creatures, half-dragon, half-bat. Bucolic it was not.

De la Beche’s theme was Duria Antiquior: a more ancient Dorset. As a young man, he had become an associate and admirer of Mary Anning, the daughter of a cabinet-maker from Lyme Regis whose unrivalled eye for fossils had brought to light a whole host of astonishing discoveries. The seas and skies of Dorset, it appeared, had once teemed with remarkable creatures. Geologists made their names presenting Anning’s finds to learned societies in London. Anning herself, meanwhile, as someone who stood outside the scientific establishment, was denied both the credit and the financial rewards that were properly her due. De la Beche, outraged on her behalf, painted Duria Antiquior to make amends. Reproduced as a lithograph, it proved wildly popular. Anning’s discoveries were introduced to a fascinated public, and her celebrity assured. De la Beche, meanwhile, had initiated an entire new genre: what Zoë Lescaze, in her hulking great sauropod of a new book, terms “paleoart”.

Laelaps by Charles R Knight, 1897. Picture: American Museum of Natural History, New York

The ambition to put flesh on prehistoric bones did not originate in 19th-century Britain. The Roman emperor Tiberius, presented with a fossilised tooth over a foot long, is said to have commissioned the model of a human head proportionate to the scale of the artefact. At Klagenfurt in Austria, the statue of a dragon sculpted in 1590 was given a head modelled on the skull of a woolly rhinoceros. Only with the emergence of palaeontology as a science, though, were artists at last able to portray what long-extinct creatures might have looked like with a reasonable degree of accuracy – and, what was more, to situate them within landscapes thrillingly different to those of the present day. This is why De la Beche ranks as such an innovator.

Few genres of art were more authentically representative of the industrial age than portrayals of the prehistoric past. As the artist Walton Ford puts it in his preface: “This is a book brimming with images born in the heat of startling discovery, urgent works of first contact and of handcrafted time travel.”

As such, they are images not just of prehistoric life, but of how different people at different times have imagined prehistoric life. Hence, perhaps, why the earliest illustrations compiled in the book tend to be the most agitated and unsettling of all. They are the expressions of an entire upheaval in sensibility, of the shock felt by complacent humanity at the discovery of just how immense were the cycles of geological time, and of how brutal had been the repeated cullings of creatures that were now only to be found entombed in rock.

“Prehistory,” as Lescaze puts it, “could not help but engender uncomfortable musings on a benevolent God’s capacity to annihilate entire species.” A shadow of the apocalyptic hung over the earliest works of paleoart. Volcanoes exploded, oceans seethed, beast preyed on beast. In Duria Antiqua, such was the terror of one plesiosaur that the wretched animal was shown voiding proto-coprolites on to the sea floor.

Pteranodon by Heinrich Harder, reconstructed by Hans Jochen Ihle, 1982. Picture: Taschen

This conviction, that life in prehistory had been nothing but endless competition, achieved its most iconic expression in America – fittingly, in 1928, just a year before the Wall Street Crash. Charles Knight’s illustration of a Tyrannosaurus rex confronting a Triceratops established a template for dinosaur-on-dinosaur action that has never been superceded. It was an image bred of American mythology – and specifically of the mythology of the lands across which both species of dinosaur had once roamed. In Knight’s rendering, they advance through the haze, as Lescaze nicely puts it, “like gunslingers outside a saloon”.

Different cultures, though, could imagine the Mesozoic in different ways. In an early Second World War Soviet painting by Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, the ceratopsians are altogether less individualistic. Banding together into a collective, three of them see off a tyrannosaur which, like the Nazis in Stalingrad, proves unable to breach a determined defence. Almost fauvist in its use of colour and abstraction, Flyorov’s paintings will prove revelatory to anyone brought up, as I was, on an exclusive diet of Western paleo-illustrations.

“The art form,” Lescaze argues, “reached its apogee under the Soviet regime, flourishing in a society that not only prized science, but craved glory and international prestige.” As she brilliantly demonstrates, prehistory provided artists under Stalin with a theme that could legitimately encompass ambivalence, mystery and doubt. “There is no single narrative, no blatant message impressed upon the viewer.” The startling images that Lescazes has assembled from the former Soviet Union, justify the price of this sumptuous, beautiful book alone.

So too, though, do the studies of better-known paleo-artists, whose work will be instantly familiar to anyone who enjoyed a dinosaur-obsessed childhood in the 1970s or 1980s: Rudolph Zallinger, who toiled in Yale’s Peabody Museum throughout the Second World War over a colossal fresco of Mesozoic megafauna; the troubled, ghoulish Czech, Zdenek Burian, whose mammoths, brachiosaurs and Neanderthals “burn with the artist’s obvious fascination with fur, flesh, scales, and skin”; Neave Parker, a beer-drinking, self-proclaimed clairvoyant who worked at the Natural History Museum, and had a taste, when drawing dinosaurs, for “hyperarticulated muscle”.

Tree of Life by Alexander Mikhailovich Belashov, 1984. Picture: Borrissiak Paleontological Institute RAS​

The only real disappointment of the book is that it stops when it does: for there is no room, in Lescaze’s otherwise panoramic study of paleoart, for more recent developments in the genre. The work of contemporary paleo-artists such as Julius Csotonyi or Mark Witton bear comparison with anything in the field that has gone before: true to palaeontology, but true as well to the traditions of eeriness and inventiveness that have been constants in paleoart since De la Beche settled down to paint Jurassic Dorset.

Tom Holland’s most recent book is “Dynasty: the Rise and fall of the House of Caesar” (Little, Brown)

Paleoart
Zoë Lescaze
Taschen, 286pp, £75

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem