Are the Books Back?

05/12/2011 23:06 GMT | Updated 04/02/2012 10:12 GMT

Times change. It's as big a cliché as life goes on or sh*t happens. But for the first time in a very long time, it might actually be cool to like to read again. Why this positive shift has occurred is down to a variety reasons. It could be because people have just gotten a little fed up with corporate big money. It's perhaps because of the Amazon Kindle, which brings words to you but within the comfortingly modern interface of a computer screen. It might even be because there are now a lot of unemployed people with some empty hours to fill. And what a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

But the main reason books are back is because, erm, they never left. We're coming up to the 100-year anniversary of the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, the novel that many claim to be the zenith of form, and I'd argue that books have never been in better shape. Gasp as you may, but the reality is that within the history of literature we have never seen such a broad readership alongside output and experimentation.

When Walpole, Radcliffe and the Gothics first popularised the novel, it was seen by those in the ancient universities as a trifling piece of trash, to be read only by women and forgotten. The less said about it the better, eh?

The sad reality of the case was that, however, only the very rich could actually buy them. At the birth of the popular novel, there was not only a lack of supply but a precocious arrogance toward its form. It was written by a small group of people for a small readership. Yet the Gothic novel flourished. Lending libraries began to spring up, which offered books at more reasonable prices. And of course, the gothic was a hit: it's trashy, racy, ridiculous and mind-numbingly unsubtle. It's the perfect example of what we now call the 'airport book'. The snobs may have looked down their noses, but the novel's reputation as somehow 'unclean' kept the medium afloat.

By the time Charles Dickens came on the scene, with his Bloomsbury swagger and eye for a cliffhanger, the Industrial Revolution had taken its hold on Europe and turned Gutenberg's printing press into a national phenomenon. The rise of affordable newspapers and standardized printing regulations brought about an upswing in literacy that is still being felt today. Dickens, perhaps our most famous novelist, could afford to publish his novels in that now famous serial form - playing on his readership's desire for an ending and their insatiable desire for more. Back returned the Gothic clichés (think Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Hyde) and with its renewed success came family dramas, mock-epics, historical dramas, ad infinitum. The novel cemented its place above the poem as the nation's favourite type of literature. It had all the entertainment and wit of the poem, with none of the grandeur and elitism.

But then came the troubling Modernists, who had grown tired with old forms and tried to, in the words of Pound, "make it new." Whilst the structuralists amongst us will debate whether that aim was achieved, I would argue that they transformed the way us contemporaries view literature. If you know a 16- to 18-year-old who is keen on their books, go ask them what are the most 'challenging' or 'difficult' books ever written. They'll all say Joyce's Ulysses. Of course, some of the smarter ones will say Finnegans Wake or Tristram Shandy, but they're ahead of the curve. The reason for this interest is simple: people like a challenge. To say one has read Ulysses is the equivalent of saying you only drink expensive wine. It's considered a bit snobby, a little try-hard.

This is because it mixed the artistic flourishes of poetry and the gleeful experiments of the early novelists with the popular book, causing a seismic shift in the perceived capacity of the novel. Books are no longer one or the other, entertainment or art - they can be pieces of pure entertainment as well as intellectual pursuits. Just look at Danielewski's House of Leaves or Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad. And the best part of all this is that we, the reader, need not worry about what to read or how much they cost. Books have always, always, been expensive, and yet we still buy them. We have the entire historical cannon in bookshops, online and inside us. We've got thousands of living authors publishing new, fascinating material. We can choose to read it on our laptop, our mobile phone, our iPad or Kindle. Or, you know, like the good old days with a book in hand by the fire. Glass of wine in t'other.

As long as we keep on showing the desire to read (and the current upswing I'm noticing here in London concerning 'Save Your Bookshop' rallies or literary nights suggests we are) then books can never die. Or go away. Because everyone secretly fancies themselves as a writer and the best way to do that is to become a reader. Sadly, bookshops may close. But we won't, as a species, stop desiring to read. We'll find other ways. We already have.


If you're still not convinced, and think that the best days are behind us, then check out the plans for Danielewski's new novel, The Familiar, which has aspirations to "reinvent the historic Dickensian publishing formula" by releasing it in 27 separate serialisations..."using a new technology." Bring it on.