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.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era