Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is it really doomsday for books? Not while English casts its spell
Economic and technological changes have freed the English language from the shackles of empire and expanded its reach still wider

Robert McCrum writing in The Observer

From the embattled frontline of the Anglo-American books world there seems to be nothing but bad news. Publishers have become like unlucky generals, receiving "All is lost. Flee at once" reports from panic-stricken aides-de-camp. Only a very few can say, with Macbeth, that they will never sag with doubt nor shake with fear.

Borders has fallen. Waterstone's, once a mighty citadel, is beseiged. MD Gerry Johnson has quit. Well-known literary agents are scurrying round town in search of life-saving mergers. Advances have hit rock bottom. The celebrity memoir is going the way of the dodo. The ebook is the future. Libraries, comprehensively digitised by Google, have become mausoleums of an ossifying tradition.

On and on it goes. 2010, not three weeks old, bears all the signs of a watershed year. It used to be the conventional wisdom that books tended to be recession-proof. Not this time. A perfect storm of economic and technological change has transformed the literary atmosphere more completely than at any time in living memory. Across the blogosphere you hear the same refrain: "The sky is falling."

We should not surrender too easily to the seductions of pessimism. Publishers, notoriously, are like farmers: the harvest was disastrous, the crops are failing; the herd is sick and they've never known weather like it. Yet there they are, living the life of Riley, carving up the countryside in shiny new Chelsea tractors and trousering hefty EC grants…

In books, from some points of view, there is still plenty to celebrate. Readers are more dynamic and discriminating than they have been for a generation. Literary festivals are booming. The books themselves, with some egregious exceptions, are better printed, bound and jacketed than ever before. Take any volume published in the 1970s and place it next to, say, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall or Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. The contrast is shocking. Narrow margins, cheap paper, and hideous typography have all had a comprehensive aesthetic makeover.

The broader the horizons, the better it looks. The global marketplace into which these books are launched has become exceedingly hospitable to writers, booksellers and literary middlemen who make their living from the English language. Here, particularly, there has been a transformation whose economic and cultural consequences are only just beginning to attract serious attention.

This transformation has been shrouded in something like the fog of war, the smoke and dust from the global IT revolution whose outcome no sensible person can predict, and whose influence touches every aspect of the printed word: books, magazines and newspapers.

The essentials are clear enough: English, in its contemporary Anglo-American guise, has been a lingua franca since roughly the end of the second world war. Throughout the cold war, Anglo-American culture and values became as much a part of global consciousness as the combustion engine. There was hardly a transaction in the contemporary world that was innocent of English, in some form. However, until the turn of the millennium, its scope was limited by its troubled association with British imperialism and the pax Americana.
Read Robert McCrum's full piece at The Guardian online.

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