In the age of “peak book”

I seldom work in libraries, for all the obvious reasons: you can't smoke, eat or drink, while the proximity of many lithe young bodies in tense repose inevitably tends one's thoughts to the sexual. And then there are the books. Of course, when I was a young man, the books didn't bother me so much, while the sexualisation of libraries was more extreme. Back then, I laboured under the healthy delusion that, although I could not be as well read as Coleridge (who was said to be the last man to have read everything), I might yet read all that truly mattered.

Now, just as the possibility of joyous congress among the stacks retreats on hushed puppies, so the idea of all those unread books has become a screaming torment. Even the most innocuous of local libraries feels to me like Borges's library of Babel, with its infinite number of texts.

As for the British Library, where I do occasionally undertake some research, the very atmosphere seems charged with an awareness of the great mound of the unread that we all squat atop, as flies might write dissertations upon a dungheap.

When Gutenberg tore the first sheet off his press, at most 100 titles began to appear annually. As literacy and print expanded, this was retained, but après Coleridge came the dry and rustling deluge as the numbers of books increased exponentially. By 1950, a quarter of a million were published every year, while today a book is published somewhere in the world every 20 seconds (that's 1,576,800 per annum, in case you were wondering). Meanwhile, literacy in the so-called developed world steadily cedes mental territory to the pixellated onslaught.

Reader's block

In such a culture, is it not possible to argue that the relentless production of books is itself a form of insanity? That collectively we are like someone who acquires ever more titles purely in order to convince herself - or her friends - that she is on the point of reading them? After all, the vast majority of these books are not only unread but also unreadable. Deranged diet plans, miserable misery memoirs and novels with less novelty than a coprolite doubtless abound, but by far the biggest slice of the papery pie comprises doctoral dissertations that have received ISBNs purely so their authors can keep on reading other books and decoct them into books of their own.

And all this while the axe of public spending cuts whistles around the head of local library services, so that young and disadvantaged people who might actually want reading matter cannot find the wherewithal - mad, no? Still, some kind of sane perspective can be achieved by reflecting on this: Google's servers process a petabyte (one quadrillion bytes) of data every hour. Fifty petabytes is roughly equal to the entire written works of humankind up until now. Last year was also the first that the British publishing industry suffered a net decrease in sales, although not production.

Insane in the brain

The above leads me to suspect that we indeed may have passed that numinous - but for all that, real - point known as "peak book". Might this mean that the ever-expanding and ever-deranging gap between what is written and what is read may be beginning to narrow at last? Don't be ridiculous! The web has put paid to that - all those petabytes, all those pages! If the consciousness of unread books was bad enough, what about the consciousness of unread web pages?

It all puts me in mind of the Cha'an meditation illness: an incontinent recall of Buddhist texts that is the symptom of a Zen pupil's overstrained psyche, and which can only be rectified by his master hitting him on the head with a stick. Otherwise, the texts proliferate across his visual field, while the meaning of every word is instantly grasped by him. At first, there are just texts the pupil knows, but soon enough these are joined by others he has only heard of - yet these, too, are comprehended in their entirety.

There is worse to come, as flying from all angles wing still more texts that the pupil is compelled to include in his screaming wits - texts he has never heard of at all, texts he didn't know could exist, texts written by alien civilisations, texts doodled on the Etch a Sketch of God by archangels peaking on acid! No stick is big enough to beat this pupil - Humanity. So the maddening and delusory library expands, while the real and useful one is shut down.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide