Posted tagged ‘books’


May 2, 2016

Let’s not personalise this, so no names. But a few years ago I read about a group of academics protesting at their university about some restructuring or other then taking place. Their ire was particularly directed at one of the university’s senior management team, an academic who, they claimed, didn’t have a single book in his office. More recently at another university, or so it is claimed, another member of the senior team stated openly that he didn’t see the need for a university library any more.

But it’s not just university heads and their teams. The Independent newspaper recently reported that at an English university some academics are finding it hard to persuade their students to read books. One professor suggested:

‘Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard.’

Others have reported that Victorian literature is disappearing from the curricula of English degree courses because the novels are simply too long – nobody could be expected to read them cover to cover.

Of course it’s not just universities. A couple of years ago in America the Pew Research Center found that 23 per cent of adults had not read a single book (in whatever form, including digital and audio) in the preceding year. Some 35 years earlier that figure would have been 8 per cent.

So what is happening? Are books dead? I doubt that: in recent years there has been a drop in book sales in some countries, but more than off-set by significant increases in others. Nevertheless, people’s engagement with them is changing, and because you can read things in unusual ways and take them from unusual sources it is hard to gauge changes in reading patterns. And of course a ‘book’ is a more complex item now, as it is not necessarily something printed on paper between covers.

I would be more concerned if the choice of books we might read were all about volume and length. There is of course an important place in literature for the short story or the novella. But it is important that we take the time and make the effort to engage with ideas that occupy more than 60 pages. There may be all sorts of reasons for including or not including Charles Dickens on a university curriculum: but the fact that his books tend to be longer than 500 pages should not be one of them.


Reading time

April 27, 2014

On a Sunday, if I have no other commitments, I like to spend some time reading. And maybe taking photographs.



March 22, 2014

Aa some readers of this blog will have gathered, I am a technophile. I love gadgets, and in particular am fully immersed in the digital world. I read my newspapers on the iPad, and I have goodness knows how many ebooks and electronically stored documents and reports. But I have not completely left the analogue world, nor will I. So for example, whenever I read, in ebook form, a book I really like, then I buy it in hard copy, indeed preferably hardback if available. And in my family home in Ireland, I have a very large collection of contemporary and vintage books, several thousand by now.

I love books. I like the look, the feel, the smell. In older books, I love the knowledge of the procession of people who have read them through the ages. I also own some books printed in the 19th century or earlier that were never read – the pages were still joined together until I cut them. I love the sense that these leather bound volumes were prepared by some craftspeople 200 years ago to be read by me now, for the first time.

So here you can see a small selection of my books from one particular shelf: 19th century travel guides. They are a particular pleasure to read, and in this case, as you can see, they were much used long before I got to them. They are the inherited appreciation of the world we can visit.

travel guides

travel guides

Digital ephemera?

September 18, 2012

Although we now clearly live in a digital age, we are often still very hesitant about accepting its robustness. In fact, though I am an enthusiastic user of every digital device and all electronic media, even I can be uncertain about their durability. A couple of years ago I was asked by a group of schoolchildren to advise them what format to use for electronic data they wanted to put in a time capsule, to be opened in 100 years. Paper, I said without hesitation. I could not be sure that a disk, or a memory stick, or a DVD would still be readable in 100 years time, or indeed that they would not have degraded in the interim.

So what does that mean? Should we assume that what we consume in digital format is for the moment only? This question has been raised on some occasions in relation to ebooks: is reading literature (or anything else) in this format the same as reading a paper-based book, or is it in some way different? The author Jonathan Franzen has recently suggested that the ‘impermanence’ of ebooks makes them unsuitable for serious reading. This becomes an issue in universities when the prospect arises of distributing course materials entirely in digital format, so-called ‘etexts’. Some argue in favour of using these, others are more cautious; but the early evidence is that they can be very effective educational tools.

Personally, I am willing to read pretty much anything in ebook format, though if I believe that I will want to read the book again and may want to reference it in future, I’ll buy a paper copy. But textbooks are different anyway. Most students dispose of them after they have completed their studies. There is therefore little reason to conclude that having etexts is somehow worse than having traditional books; indeed the use of etexts may provide lecturers with an opportunity to use innovative pedagogy.

I still do not know how the digital world will develop, and I am absolutely ready to believe that what we use now in electronic format will not be useable in 30 years time. But I do believe that the principle of electronic reading will continue to be adopted, and the technology will eventually produce more durable products; and I see no evidence of any pedagogical disadvantage. We must continue to innovate, even if the books on my bookshelves will remain also.

The digital life, and nothing but?

November 4, 2011

I am writing this post from my office in my university. I am typing it into my iMac (Apple Macintosh). Sitting next to it is my iPad, which right now contains some 50 books and other materials; one of the iPad-resident books I am reading is on the future of higher education. If I look beyond my computing equipment to the wall opposite, there are two bookcases in which I have maybe 250 books (I have rather more than that at home). Are these sources of reading in competition with each other, and if they are, which one will win in the end?

The digital ones will, if you follow the perspective of Salford University’s new digital campus at the MediaCity location. The director of this venture describes his facility as follows:

‘This is a digital futures campus. It is not a place you come to read books. It is a place to do real work on real-time digital platforms. You are not messing around – you are in the real world.’

Some of this is at the heart of what we might call the knowledge world, since it extends beyond higher education. There is a school of thought in this world that just thinks digital: the school of MIT’s Media Labs, or of the new Salford venture. There are others who believe that this is all the work of devil, and that those who like digital products and processes are clearly philistines. The reality is probably somewhere in between. But the issue is more important than just a question of technology and platforms. It is about how we handle, disseminate and process knowledge. Digital technology gives us much greater choices, and I am certainly an avid user. But I don’t conclude from this that the world of books no longer has a use beyond aesthetically populating bookshelves. In the end, books are probably still the most durable source of data. I think.

It is written …

December 4, 2010

For the month of November, I read a total of four ebooks. I didn’t read any book printed on paper, at all, and that marks a first for me. Nevertheless, before I get too carried away I might remind myself that I own somewhere in the region of 5,000 hard copy books, and maybe 25 ebooks. I am not about to become an electronic-only reader.

The fact that this is still very much an emerging market is made clear by the fact that US publisher Simon & Schuster recently stated that 7 per cent of its book sales are now ebook versions. That may not sound much, but five years ago the figure would have been zero. I would guess that by 2020 it will be well over 50 per cent.

Apart from the obvious questions about habit and taste that will determine how fast the ebook spreads, we should also be asking how publication will work in future. As you and I can now publish for free whatever we want on a huge number of blogs and other websites, will that be the model for book publishing – or will we need a more traditional type publisher to promote and market our work?

Books contain the narrative of our society and our world. They are a distinct source of knowledge, distinguishable from newspapers and magazines. They have a sense of shape, both physically and intellectually. Can this be maintained in electronic format?

As ebook reader devices become ever more sophisticated, I am willing to bet that this is the future of authoring and reading. However, I will also bet that in 10 years I will still on occasion take a leather-bound volume off the shelf and settle down to read it. If I’m spared.

What’s in a library?

February 1, 2009

Twenty years ago this year I started on the process that would finish with the publication of my first book. In fact, in the course of my career I have written four books, and edited or co-edited another ten or so. In a great display of narcissism, when I visited a major library in London recently I did a search for my books and found them nearly all there, and went to the relevant shelf to admire them. There is a kind of quiet satisfaction in seeing them and thinking that this is something of me that may remain after I have gone.

Or will it? Can I really be sure that, in another 50 years, there will still be libraries like that one, or that any libraries that do exist will be displaying anything very much on shelves?

I recall the occasion when, in my last university, I was at a meeting at which the Librarian explained that, at that point, the cost of new journal and book acquisitions necessary for maintaining our teaching and research had begun to exceed our means. And he pointed out that this would get worse, that academic publishers were putting up journal prices in particular at a rate far beyond inflation, and that soon only very wealthy universities would be able to maintain an adequate collection. That was still in the days before widespread digital and online publications. Now the hard copy versions of a good many publications are beyond the resources of most institutions.

You would of course wonder about the business plans of publishers who have for years been pricing their products out of affordability for many of their customers, but I think some of them took the view that they held so many monopoly rights that they could afford to squeeze academic libraries, which on the whole simply couldn’t afford not to have their products and would have to cut other things if necessary.

But all of that may have fatally undermined paper versions of academic publications. As the crazy pricing escalated, many libraries started moving away from acquiring hard copies of some items and started offering electronic access to books and journals as the primary avenue of distribution. Once you start down that road, you cannot return: the cost of stocking all these items on paper later on would be so prohibitively expensive that no-one could afford to contemplate it.

When I was setting out to write that first book, I occupied a desk in the library, and there I surrounded myself with stacks of books, papers and journals, and the atmosphere of scholarship emanating from these was almost tangible and a great motivator of my research. I am of course a technophile, and I happily sit at my computer to research something. But in the end it’s not the same. Of course I want electronic access to everything in my library, but I also want hard copies of books and journals, and I refuse to believe that this world is lost and gone for ever. Surely it cannot be!

The future of books

July 22, 2008

I confess I am a gadget freak. If there’s a new gadget, I feel I absolutely need it. Put an iPhone on sale, and I’m in the line to get it. New and better satellite navigation? Let me have it! An electronic corkscrew? Absolutely! So for a while I have been eyeing up e-book readers, and oddly enough I still haven’t made a purchase, despite on the whole wanting to. How convenient to be able to bring the entire collection of Dickens novels, Shakespeare plays, books on university leadership and poetry anthologies on to the plane with me!

So I look at eBay offers, Amazon reviews of the Kindle (not yet for sale in these parts anyway), Sony devices and so forth. But I don’t buy. Even for me, there is something about books in their paper version that still attracts me. There is something satisfying about putting the paper bookmark in the pages as you close the book, that even the best electronic memory cannot match. And if you’re that way inclined, something beautiful and sensual about a leather cover of an antique book.

Sooner or later I know I shall buy an e-book reader. But I bet any amount of money that, in 10 years time, I shall still be buying paper-based books, admiring them, and reading them. Even in this age of fast-paced technology, some things will stay the same.

Recommended reading…

July 6, 2008

I appreciate that not everyone will be interested, but I am just reading the novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka. It is a quirky, funny and very interesting book – a kind of Big Fat Greek Wedding set in England and with a Ukrainian rather than Greek family. I confess I bought it because I simply loved the title, but some of my female friends tell me it (the title) is a turn-off for women. So is this a gender issue? I recommend the book anyway, to male and female readers.