I should say that while I disagree with Barnes’ conclusion, he represents the sensible wing of those uneasy about the changes wrought by the internet on book retailing and publishing. Just as there is an extremist fringe of those who welcome the recent upheavals, revelling heartlessly in the current disarray despite the damage to many customers and employees of traditional bookshops, there is a hard core Luddite tendency whose members abhor the impact of digitalisation in all its forms, perhaps best represented by the poor man’s Philip Roth, John Updike, whose poem Barnes quotes in the article:
“For who, in that unthinkable future
When I am dead, will read? The printed page
Was just a half-millennium's brief wonder …”
Note the conflation of reading with the act of reading the printed page. For what it’s worth John (yes, I know he’s deceased), I bought your books on my Kindle. Barnes thankfully expresses a greater optimism, but this still leads him to argue that the e-book will never completely supplant the printed page. So? And why is that the question? Surely we should be asking whether the changes of recent years will lead to a better overall set of reading options?
In my opinion we are moving towards a book market where the mid-market chains will have vanished and most light fiction is read on e-book readers, but where niche bookshops (and yes, Amazon) thrive and customers focus their purchasing of physical books on quality products that they want to keep. Barnes in his article seems mostly to agree and veers away from an unnecessary either/or approach, but then at the finish asserts that for the “serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.”
As if we have to choose a single format for our discoveries. As if format would make any difference to the impact of say Anna Karenina. It’s not book versus e-book, it’s about more books you can buy and more easily, more choice of format, and ultimately about more reading. The future is bright (so dim your screen a bit if you like).