By Victor Keegan
The web revolution that is turning whole industries from music to television upside down has been slow to reach the cosy world of books – apart, that is, from the pioneering bookseller Amazon. Not any more. Interesting things are happening on a variety of fronts that are changing the way books are found, read and talked about, and in almost every case for the good. Even while you are reading this, Google and others are scanning libraries of books – including the Bodleian at Oxford – to make tomes that were hitherto hidden available for all to read; in the case of the millions of out-of-copyright and “orphaned” ones, where ownership is unknown, for free.
Using Google’s book search you can even scour footnotes, though in the case of a copyrighted book you have to buy it to make much sense of the information. Anyone who thought that the web was going to kill books has to explain the fact that at the very least there are now millions more waiting to be killed off. It is a wonderful development soiled only by the myopic opposition of some publishers who are too close to see the tectonic plates changing the nature of their trade. If you add in the admirable Gutenberg.org, which claims 2m free downloads of out-of-copyright books a month, plus other copycat sites – such as pagebypagebooks.com – then this is the golden age of access to books.
But how do you read them? Trying to do it online is almost as big a pain as the costly business of printing out 300 pages of every book you want to take on holiday. But help is imminent in the shape of the Sony eReader (reviewed here recently, but mainly available in the US) and the more versatile, but less user-friendly, iLiad. They use “e-ink” which removes the need for a backlit screen and, contrary to my early impressions, can even be read well on a beach. It is also possible to read whole books on mobile devices (the Nokia N800 internet tablet is much used for this) and even on an ordinary mobile phone screen, several words flashing at a time, using ICUE. Or, if you want to be professional about it, you could download the text of a book from the likes of Gutenberg then upload it to a self-publishing site such as Lulu.com and make it into a real paperback book for a few quid (plus a rather high postage charge).
If all this sounds like too much of a lonesome activity then look no further than the wonderful librarything.com, which is bringing social networking to books in a potentially huge way. It is well loved by its 160,000 enthusiastic members (up from 20,000 when my colleague Andrew Brown wrote about it last September) but has the potential to attract millions. If you want to input a book from your bookshelf or bookclub simply type in the beginning of the title and up comes the book with colour cover and blank stars waiting or you to rate it or write a review. If that is too difficult then you can buy a cheap bar code scanner that will do it even more quickly.
Either way you soon have a database of your books that can be viewed by other librarything groupies around the world. I found it eerie to discover that someone else had read the same books on an arcane subject that I had (no, not internet related). You immediately feel an affinity with a total stranger. The site has the usual accoutrements of community websites such as tags with lots of discussion groups and this month teamed up with the excellent AbeBooks, which now claims to be the biggest online bookseller anywhere. It provides a shopfront for second-hand bookshops around the world whose existence was once threatened by the web. Independent reviews from librarything (in which AbeBooks now has a 40% stake) can be read before purchasing online. Far from being killed off by the web, books have been reinvented on a bigger scale.