Will our grandchildren stumble upon treasures?
I celebrate all of these aspects. But in the longer run, I do have some major concerns about a world in which printed books have been almost completely replaced by e-books. My biggest worry is about whether our grandchildren and their children will ever be able to stumble upon treasured books in the way that I, and many generations before me, have always been able to do.
What do I mean by ‘stumble upon’? Well, the visual image is clear – you are walking down the street and you are tripped up by something lying on the footpath. You examine it, and find that it is a bar of gold. You have unexpectedly stumbled upon a treasure. You didn’t set out that morning to look for gold bars, you didn’t contact all of your friends on Facebook to ask them where you were most likely to locate a gold bar, you didn’t do a Google search for maps of likely gold bar locations. Nope, you were just walking down the street and – whoops! – well, look at that! Can you imagine the delight you would feel?
It’s this kind of happy accidental find which I fear will no longer be possible in the realm of books in the future.
Apart from a ‘shop window’ promoting the latest best-sellers, all on-line book stores rely on the customer carrying out a search. And the problem with searching is that you need to know what you are looking for before you start. The latest Michael Connelly or Nora Roberts? No problem. The top-selling SF novel this year? Easy. But what are we to do with a query like “I just want a really good read”? Or “I want to discover an author whose books I’m going to love for the rest of my life” ? Or “Give me a book in a genre I’ve never before thought about trying” ?
In my case, throughout my life, the answers to these kinds of questions have come about as the result of accidentally stumbling upon great books.
Here are a few examples that come to mind:
- In the children’s lending library, at age 10, coming upon an interesting-looking volume called The Story of the Amulet; reading it with delight and only then discovering that it was the third in a series by its author E.Nesbit. Going back and borrowing every book by that author which I could find.
- At home, hunting through my father’s modest collection of books, pulling out A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and asking if I could read it, so discovering a life-long love of science fiction.
- In my early teens, finally allowed into the adult lending library, spotting a yellow-jacketed Gollancz SF novel called The City and the Stars by someone called Arthur C. Clarke, and having my mind blown away by an imagination leagues ahead of anything I had encountered before.
- Being given a tattered paperback by one of my father’s work friends: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. So far as I can recall, this was the first adult book I had ever owned, the founding stone of my collection of nearly 3,000 books. I still have it.
- In my later teens, at the school library, borrowing a volume called The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, thinking it was science fiction, and instead discovering a fascinating historical story, awakening a new and life-long interest in English history as a result.
- As an adult, picking up a book on a remainder table called And Always a Detective by R.F.Stewart. It’s a history of detective fiction, and it spends a lot of time on someone called Wilkie Collins, whose novel The Moonstone (1868) is regarded as the precursor of the genre. Going on to buy a copy of the latter. Falling in love with Collins’ work, becoming a huge fan.
- At a friend’s house, picking up a copy of The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. ”Yes, yes,” said the friend, “borrow it, you must read it!”. Becoming besotted by this series of six historical novels. Now, if asked what my favorite books of all time are, I point to this series.
It’s these kinds of discovery experiences which I fear may no longer be possible for our grandchildren in the brave new world of e-books.