Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Death of the book

When asked recently about the impending death of the book it occurred to me that, just like the terms 'text' and 'literacy', new developments prompt us to rethink our definitions and terms of reference. If we think of the book as that familiar material object made up of printed paper bound together between hard or soft covers we are likely to think of the different platforms now available - platforms that turn the actual book into something like a virtual simulacrum of the 'original' object. Alternatively, if we think of the book as a particular form of writing - a reasonably lengthy piece defined by the generic conventions of literary fiction, reference and the like, we might think that the exponential growth in the number of titles available and the number of topics covered continues regardless of trends in format and distribution. In this sense, book sales remain high, and although e-book sales are rising rapidly there is no reason to believe that we are witnessing the death of the book. Take children's literature, fiction and non-fiction for young people as a case in point. These forms continue to attract some of the finest writers and illustrators, and although Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman is currently campaigning for more reading for pleasure, I don't believe that things are in terminal decline. Of course we want children to read, and to enjoy reading as a leisure activity, but we also need to recognise that new digital forms have an important a part to play in this. It's probably true to say that with the advent of widely available tools for digital communication, there is more reading and writing going on now than at any other point in our history. This means that there's more competition for our reading time, and of course narrative fiction has to compete with both film and videogaming for our attention. But, at the same time, print books continue to be popular and attractive (they gain media attention - witness the Harry Potter phenomenon) whilst on the other hand more authors and media producers are investigating what digital fiction might look like, and indeed how 'transmedia' narratives gain traction. In my own work I have shown how young children respond positively to interactive story apps on iPads and there are some great resources available - and huge potential for future development. However these developments don't sound the death knell for the book, they just provide more alternatives. Parents shouldn't be worried by the growing availability of resources like story apps - they should embrace them and allow them to take their place alongside familiar storybooks. Although school and public libraries are threatened by funding cuts, there are some compelling reports of libraries that have embraced digital media, giving them a proper place alongside more traditional forms. In short, books matter - we need to introduce children to them, celebrate them, own them, share them and lend them. But we also need to be aware of the alternatives and the exciting developments that are now possible.