Book and Magazine Collector end of an era?

October 22, 2011 § 3 Comments

  1. Well it had to happen I suppose. November sees the last issue of  the very informative book and magazine collector apparently due to printing and publishing costs. On reading this article on ‘The Future of Book Collecting,  I loved the dedication to books inferred from the article  “For the first 500 years professional scribes and illustrators copied out books by hand until a technological marvel called the printing press took over. After that it all became pretty flat and calm again, apart from piffling little interruptions like wars, plagues, earthquakes and revolutions.

I also suspect book collecting will remain at large albeit in significant less mass. 

 Bits from an Old Bookshop
Bits from an Old Bookshop
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A hundred years ago this little paperback was on the counter of The Waverley Book Store, an Edinburgh antiquarian bookshop run by Robert M. Williamson. The enticing ‘twopenny box’ shown on the cover drew customers inside, where the air was filled with the scent of old leather and paper and the shelves were crammed with beautiful books priced in shillings and pence.

Williamson had been a dealer for 30 years when he wrote these wonderful reminiscences about the book world. He learnt his trade as an apprentice to what he calls ‘an old time book seller’ who trained no fewer than six future proprietors of Edinburgh shops.

It is full of his love of books and his tales of thrilling auctions, stupendous finds and undersold bargains make for mouth watering reading today.

It must have been irresistible at the time, too, certainly for one particular customer. On the morning of 12 June 1908 a Mr Charles Spackman walked in and browsed the stock.

At the counter the bold and fashionable design of Bits From An Old Bookshop caught his eye and he added it to his pile. Then he left, perhaps to hunt through some of those other bookshops before returning to room 101 at the Caledonian Station Hotel.

Books reach out to us from the past. A century later this one turned up in a south coast bookshop – the air filled with the scent of old leather and paper – and lay on another counter waiting to be picked up once more.

The joys of ownership began again when I found it, along with some little slips of paper inside: Spackman’s book plate, a snipped out obituary of Williamson and the dated delivery label from The Waverley Book Store. Taken together they provide concrete evidence of a book collector’s proud memory of meeting the author and of a happy moment in the world of old books.

I’m a book collector and I know a treasure when I see one. This book will be on my shelves until I die. Until recently we could say with complete confidence that it would then pass safely into the hands of another collector but unfortunately I’m not so sure.

I love old books, and so do you, but the cosy old world of cosy old books is heading for a showdown, a title fight to the death that has already begun. A slick silicon upstart with warm electric blood is gunning for books and if it wins the war our lives will never be the same again.

The story now is not bits from a bookshop; it’s bits from a computer, the bits and bytes that might well kill paper books forever.

The history of books is long but astonishingly uneventful. The codex format, modern-looking books with pages rather than a long scroll, was established 2,000 years ago. For the first 500 years professional scribes and illustrators copied out books by hand until a technological marvel called the printing press took over.

After that it all became pretty flat and calm again, apart from piffling little interruptions like wars, plagues, earthquakes and revolutions. A decade ago along came the internet, and once again nothing much happened.

All the net did was change the people involved and move the stock from high street to back room store. Big deal.

Books survived it all. Just look at this one. It looks practically new, as fresh as it did that summer’s day when it was packed up and sent along on the first part of its journey. Nothing ever happens to books because books have a special, unique status.

They were protected during those wars, rescued from the disasters and cared for in libraries that were built like palaces and guarded just as carefully. And no wonder. Paper books have conquered continents, recorded dreams, toppled governments and inspired generations. They have been, without doubt, the single most respected man-made objects ever created – until now.

Books are fast becoming second best. Gutenberg’s press just speeded up the production of the same old thing. This time we’ve made factories full of robots to snap together something very different: ebooks. The next decade will be the most important one in the two thousand year history of the book.

Now, for the first time ever, the book itself is under threat. Over the next ten years the public will be asked to choose which we want, carbon or silicon, paper or screens. Ebooks are in their infancy but screens have won the first round and we may have already reached peak book. 

Open the newspaper and it’s all bad news: teenagers don’t read, Google have scanned everything and schools are dumping their textbooks. And do you still open the paper, or simply click on it?

Without books we’d be at the mercy of the world, starving or ill or dead but progress doesn’t care. Progress is blind, which is why those hand-sized miracles on your shelves might well be replaced by – well, by a hand-sized miracle, frankly. As far as capitalism is concerned books have no special status other than the status of being the last things unchanged, the last things due for that fabulous once-in-a-life-time bright new makeover customers can’t resist.

The cold-hearted killer called progress has got it in for the things we love and it has a pretty impressive track record of success. It’s already finished off letter writing and vinyl records and CDs and camera film and now it’s writing the last chapter of paper books.

Book collecting will only survive if new collectors take it up and they will only do that if they have some sort of relationship with books.

Will the generation born with a silver screen in their hands ever pick up an old book? Will our scanned-in libraries be shut down to save money when the books are all on line, free, forever? Will governments push up the price of paper with green taxes and drive reluctant readers to the screens?

All these issues and many more will be raised as we race through the decade and the future of our hobby depends on the answers.

Because those who love the most have the most to lose. Book collectors don’t just read books. We stroke them, polish them, touch them up and kiss them. We walk in the rain for them and go hungry for them and lie and cry and swear for them.

We will not stop buying paper books but ten years from now Bits From An Old Bookshop will have been captured and changed from paper into fizzing electrons and if the public are happy about that then we will have lost the battle.

When there’s nobody left to appreciate a binding or care about condition or pay extra for a first edition then our books will become worthless clutter like shellac 78s and worn out clothes.

If books go then so will those who make them, illustrate and design them – not to mention sell them, deal in them and collect them.

On the other hand the future isn’t written yet and history has a habit of confounding expectations. Do you remember records emblazoned with the dire warning: ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’?

It was the first squawk of outrage from an industry worried about its profits and it also turned out to be precisely wrong. Home taping spread music around the world and passing it on led to more fans, more bands, more creativity and more collecting.

Today the music industry is bigger and more vibrant than ever. The same thing could happen to books. Bring on the ebooks! Let the screens spread!

Let a cheap, durable sliver of silicon find its way to every home and hut on the planet and bring education and culture and enquiry to a billion new readers who will one day look at a real book, an old book, and think – I wonder… 

If that’s the case our books will have a happy ending. Ebooks could lead to a golden age of book collecting where the limited supply of paper books will push up the prices and those that survive will be swept up by a new army of collectors and treasured like never before.

Private presses will rejuvenate the industry with gorgeous hand made books and a new generation of book collectors will discover a thousand new avenues for study and a million new ways to reveal the past.

§ 3 Responses to Book and Magazine Collector end of an era?

  • Stephanie says:

    For a while I was staunchly anti-ebook and grumbled about people who would willingly choose to read from a screen. Now that I’ve spent a little more time thinking about the publishing industry, though, I tend toward the more optimistic view you note at the end of your post. It may be that not every book is produced in physical form going forward, but they will persist as commodity objects.

    After all, you can’t show off your Kindle library to friends who come over to your apartment, you can’t tell stories about the history of your digital file, and owning an ebook doesn’t give you any cultural cred. At the very least, books will remain to us what vinyl records are to the hipster crowd today… They didn’t grow up with vinyl, to be sure.

    • Exactly, you can’t exhibit your Kindle library on fine oak bookcases in front of your Mac book fireplace screen saver. It is understandable that genres like fiction, and even biography, would naturally be adapted to kindle form without many people noticing much difference. And perhaps due to this, we won’t see so many hardcover first edition novels being published, and they will be relegated to simply cheap paperbacks. Nevertheless, I feel there will always be a market in book form for genres such as art, children and natural history, as a small digital screen won’t offer the same experience as seeing images in print.

  • ebooks may become bigger in the future but Kindle and similar electronic readers are likely to be replaced by mobile devices, once a software system has been standardized. Is is now possible to buy books as apps for the iPhone and similar devices, and then there are apps like “Audio books” which come with hundreds of free titles.

    Traditional books won’t disappear while ever people buy them, and people who like to read thend to like to browse bookshops and buy books. Pocket paperbacks are not threatened by electronic devices – and still offer the most comfortable and simple reading experience.

    It’s actually the Internet that threatens certain types of books, such as refence book. Refences books are large and expensive, and need revising every year or so. An Internet database, on the other hand, can be updated as and when need, and is often free to use.

    Finally, bear in mind that most books are very simple technology and very cheap to produce, where as electronic devices are quite expensive and are the result of years of highly complex layers of abstraction, requiring many supporting industries to produce.

    If anything is hanging by a thread, then it’s our reliance and increasing dependance on advanced technology. It’s not sustainable.

    Books will be around as long pens and paper are around.

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