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Skin Deep: literary lunacy in the ebook era

Posted by Natalie in Technology - 3 December 2011

The literary world has gone literally mad.  Ignoring one of the most ubiquitous proverbs in the English language in a desperate attempt to save a floundering industry, book publishers have started eveloping their wares in ever more elaborate works of art.

It may seem like stating the obvious to point out that the beauty lies on the inside of a book.  I could continue with a stream of clichés that convey the idea of not judging a book  by its cover, but there’s no need because we know them all by heart. There’s a good reason that phrase is so popular.

For me, nowhere is it more true than when applied to this issue.   Books are my music; literature my life companion.  I dithered over getting a Kindle for a while but living in a country where English is not the first language, it quickly became a no-brainer as I devoured weighty paperbacks long before the next arrived, complete with hefty shipping bill. Since the Kindle arrived I have spent more on books than ever before in my life, and feel all the more enriched for doing so.

There are a number of troubling implications of this new trend towards the ‘beautiful book’.  Firstly, it is an insult. Are we really all shallow consumers who value form over content, blinded by pretty colours and pictures, effortlessly coaxed into somnambulant shopping?  Secondly, these assumptions actually devalue the real product.  Adding a superficial layer of ‘art’ in order to capture the attention of potential customers is also – I think – insulting to the author, part of whose soul lies within those pages.

That’s why I found Julian Barnes’s recent comments particularly baffling.  Paying tribute to those involved in the creation of his Booker winning novel, Barnes said, “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”

Resistance? This is not a battle, this is an opportunity. Ebooks are not a challenge to be overcome, they are the means to make access to literature truly democratic, not to mention a new market with huge economic potential.  Just because an ebook can be copied, that does not mean it will be stolen. I could have downloaded the last 20 books I read for free, but I didn’t, because I recognise their intrinsic worth.  If they want to save their industry, publishers (and authors) threatened by this brave new world would do well to do the same.

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