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.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear