November 5, 2010 7:43 pm

Balancing the books

My daughter moved into her own flat in the nick of time – by transferring Biography into the shelves in her old bedroom, I just managed to stop the status of our book collection turning critical.

Factual and History moved into the spare room shelves vacated by Biography, which freed up the basement family room for Religion. With Religion out of the study, I was able to rationalise Reference and create the space to shelve all our Paperback Fiction. The Humour pile in the downstairs loo is tottering a little but there is some spare space in my writing shed. The Hardback Fiction section in the drawing room is getting close to capacity and I realise it is eccentric to keep Poetry in the kitchen (the painted wooden bookcase goes rather well with the dresser). But, for a while at least, the situation is stable.

Our dilemma is a middle-aged one but I suspect, on the basis of conversations with like-minded friends, a common one. Our books are taking over our house and, it sometimes seems, our lives.

I can trace as many book phases in my past as there are Ages of Man. I learnt the allure of second-hand shops as a teenager. My Yorkshire boarding school did not have an indoor swimming pool, so the swimming team was bused into York on Saturday afternoons for practice. There was usually an hour for pottering about in the bookshops of the Shambles before we were taken back. It was very low-budget collecting, and many of the books I bought then have long since lost their spines but they have been with me far too long to throw away.

At university in the late 1970s, investing in textbooks was a real financial challenge. The Oxford University Press edition of the Complete Works of Chaucer – solidly bound in blue buckram and printed on fine paper – cost me far too much to be discarded when I graduated. It now sits next to a 1975 Faber edition of The Complete Poems and Plays of TS Eliot, which is adorned with the embarrassing marginalia I scribbled (in pencil) as a 20-year-old undergraduate.

A salary meant being able to buy hardback copies of my favourite authors as soon as they came out. Some of these first editions – of Saul Bellow’s later novels, for example – are now valuable, so they certainly cannot go.

The fourth phase came with postings abroad. In the mid-1980s I arrived in Washington as a correspondent for Channel Four News just as American bookshops were making themselves so appealing, offering coffee and a place to read before buying. Those creamy, rough-edged pages that good American publishers use proved irresistible. A spell as Paris correspondent for the BBC offered the temptations of the barrows by the Seine.

Phases five, six and seven have come in a jumble together over the past decade. More and more friends started to publish books of their own. You go to the launch to see old friends, you buy the book and you get it signed – and, of course, you keep it in case the author comes to dinner. Far more serious, in terms of volume, has been the free book phenomenon. While I worked on the Today programme, people sent me books in the hope that I would mention them on air. We often did discussions on the programme that were based on a new book; I would skim it in preparation and then take it with me to read on the journey home after coming off air.

. . .

There have also been the life changes of middle age. My parents moved to a smaller house and passed on a few of their treasures, which needed a new home. And I remarried – to another book lover. My second wife and I are the same age and both of us have spent our working lives in current affairs broadcasting, so our collections do overlap (we now have two copies of Margaret Thatcher’s The Downing Street Years, for example, and copious paperbacks of the novels in Anthony Powell’s sequence Dance to the Music of Time, which was cult reading when we were young) but we have never had the energy to cull the duplicates. Because we are both book lovers, we keep buying and the library just gets bigger.

Worse still, it is full of books that I have not read: friends’ books that were bought at the launch party and examined in the taxi on the way home afterwards – but never quite made it to the top of the stack by my bedside; review copies that somehow got buried under the latest shipment from Amazon. And whole swathes of my wife’s collection – including several shelf-loads of African fiction and history from her student days at the School of Oriental and African Studies – are virgin territory to me. It is time to take stock.

On my desk I have an oak book trough that is supposed to be for books that I might pick up in an idle moment; but I never have idle moments, so none of them ever get picked up. The books are a daily reproach; Angler, Barton Gellman’s biography of Dick Cheney, for example, won the Pulitzer Prize and looks compelling, yet it has sat there unread since 2008.

But there is another long-neglected resident of the trough that could revolutionise my reading and solve our book crisis for ever. A couple of years ago I was sent a Sony Reader as a thank-you for speaking at a literary festival. I switched it on when it arrived and looked at the sample chapter but have done nothing with it since. Perhaps, now, my e-book moment has arrived.

It has certainly arrived for lots of other readers. In July this year, the online retailer Amazon reported that its sales of e-books had outstripped sales of hardbacks for the first time. Before long, paperbacks were overtaken too. At the end of last month, the company reported that “in the past 30 days Amazon.com customers purchased more Kindle books [its version of the electronic reader] than print books – hardcover and paperback combined – for the top 10, 25, 100 and 1,000 bestselling books on Amazon.com”. Amazon sold three times as many Kindle books in the first nine months of 2010 as it did in the same period a year earlier.

Amazon does not, of course, account for the whole market but, in mid-October, the Association of American Publishers also reported impressive figures for e-books in the US more generally. Between January and August this year, e-book sales grew by 193 per cent and they now account for close to 10 per cent of the US consumer book market. Small wonder that people have begun to talk about this year as a “tipping point”, with excited (or dire, depending where you stand) predictions that, in the rather striking phrase of one expert, “the age of Gutenberg will soon be over”. Sony has joined the cheerleading for a digital reading future. In June, Steve Haber, president of its digital reading business division, said: “Within five years there will be more digital content sold than physical content. Three years ago, I said within 10 years but I realised that was wrong – it’s within five.”

In Britain, e-books still account for only a tiny percentage of the British book market but you can see how quickly that is changing just by monitoring the number of e-book readers you now see on trains and buses. However, my own market research – informal and, let me be honest, conducted entirely in my own bookish household – produced findings that suggest a little caution might be well-advised. When I asked my 17-year-old stepdaughter whether she would consider studying her A-level set texts on an e-reader, I got a vehement “no”. “When technology goes wrong, it pisses you off monumentally,” she said (this was just after her BlackBerry had broken down), “but a book can’t go wrong.” She takes the view that the e-book is a solution without a problem, a “substitute for something that doesn’t need a substitute”.

. . .

With my personal book crisis in mind, I have been trying hard to imagine what it would be like to join the digital reading revolution. I’m finding it very difficult to be enthusiastic. I am not a technophobe; I was an early e-mailer, joined Facebook long before most middle-aged social networkers and I am a BlackBerry addict. But I cannot overcome the feeling that digital reading would be like drinking non-alcoholic wine; technically the same kind of experience but missing an essential ingredient.

Next to the forlorn Sony Reader in my book trough is a small brown notebook filled with faded but very clear writing in ink. It is a diary kept by my great aunt and it records her experiences as a volunteer ambulance driver during the fall of France in 1940.

Her account begins with the words, “May 10; Holland and Belgium invaded. First air raid alarm” and ends on June 25 with, “then I went home by the 4.25 from Charing Cross” (she fled south before the German advance and was evacuated from Bordeaux).

There are two evocative cards loose in the pages; one carries her signature and identifies her as a member of “The Mechanised Transport Corps” and the other is an elegant visiting card from “Le Baron Edouard de Barante”, inviting her to tea in the Avenue Maréchal Pétain a few days before the German advance began. It is the antithesis of an e-book; the physical object tells just as much of a story as the words it contains, and just handling it takes my imagination to those extraordinary days.

So I have decided to look for the solution to my book crisis in the relationship between my books and my own story. I have resolved that for 12 months I shall buy no new books and shall limit my leisure reading to books already in my library. There are bound to be professional reasons for bending the rule from time to time, and I cannot stop people sending me things. But if I devote myself to our existing collection in this way, I might learn something about myself and my family – and I shall certainly feel less guilty when, in the fullness of time, yet another wall is inevitably commandeered for yet another bookcase.

I shall read books my wife enjoyed when she was young for a clue to what she was like then. I shall re-read books I loved when I was studying English literature as a student to find out whether they have stood the test of time, and also to get a sense of how I have changed.

Then I shall catch up with some of the friends’ books that have been neglected, and finally I shall attack the many free books and review copies that still have a marker stuck somewhere in the first couple of chapters. Many of them look far too good to languish like this.

But I shall make one concession to e-books in my reading plan. Behind those sparkling Amazon figures for e-book sales is some intriguing detail. Five authors have sold more than half a million copies of their works in Kindle form; they are Charlaine Harris (mystery/fantasy), Stieg Larsson (thriller), James Patterson (thriller), Stephenie Meyer (fantasy), and Nora Roberts (romance). If it turns out that e-books are disproportionately successful among readers looking for holiday and airport books, it would make perfect sense, since portability is one of the e-book’s obvious competitive advantages. I love the ritual of the pre-holiday trip to an old-fashioned bookshop to stock up on reading material for a week or two in the sun but for next year I shall forgo it. On my next holiday I shall take only electronic reading.

I am not pretending to approach this experiment with anything remotely resembling an open mind, but you never know. I shall report back.

Edward Stourton is presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme

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