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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Jul-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 848

Judge a book by distance it covers

Elizabeth Farrelly

My local bookseller is closing down and moving to Mauritius. I feel bad about this because it’s my fault not Mauritius, the other bit. For years, without telling anyone, I’ve been buying books from Amazon.

Not by choice. I’d much rather hop over to the local book store (in fact any of the half dozen I can walk to from here) and get the smell of the thing before shelling out. But in truth most of the books I want, no one stocks. Even libraries, half the time. This offends me, since it shows tyranny of distance is back. And it’s getting worse.

This, too, is partly my fault, since the more people buy books from Amazon or similar, the less likely local bookstores are to stock them. I see that. But the stores are their own worst enemies. Even their websites don’t list the books in stock and usually it turns out there’s a six-week wait.

I reckon they must bring them over by tea clipper. Even from Melbourne. Whereas Amazon does door-to-door in 10 days, sometimes less and you can add the latest brilliantly scripted TV series that’s never going to show here. Trust me, the tyranny of distance is back.

So, with all this fuss about parallel importation and the death of the local book industry, I’m wondering if the cat isn’t out of the bag and halfway onto the neighbour’s roof already. Along with one or two other felines.

Consider libraries. I love libraries. My house is so book-heavy I have to be careful who I invite for dinner because some people, apparently, find full-height book walls intimidating. Personally, my fantasy dwellings generally centre on a two- or even three-tier library, complete with top-lighting, slender iron railings and green-mushroom table lamps. Sometimes there’s a tree in the middle, sometimes not.

There’s a name for this particular pathology. Librophilia. My name is Elizabeth and I’m a librophiliac.

It’s not just the books; it’s also the spaces. Traditional libraries from the columned halls of Alexandria and Pergamom to the gorgeously groined and vaulted jobs of Trinity College in Dublin, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or the good old British Library Reading Room provided dreaming space. There were shelves and balconies and corridors for the books, sure. But the space that was for the mind.

Modernism gave that nonsense short shrift; shelves to eye-height, pressed metal and lino, fluoro tubes and a ceiling you can touch, if you don’t mind the synthetic fibres. But now a lovely new library, by Richard Francis-Jones out of Clover Moore’s Surry Hills, begins to reinstate the dreaming-space. Internal plantings, real air, outsize timber louvres and a fishbowl view of Crown Street; it’s a honey of a thing that stops just short of overwhelming the village.

But what timing! Today the sparkling new library; tomorrow the demise of the book. Surry Hills Library does have books, though its architecture section (I’ve checked) would scarcely fill a beansprout container. But go count. At any one time five or six people are doing print-type things but 30 or more are on wi-fi. And that’s not counting the half of the building that doesn’t even pretend to be a library. No, books aren’t really its core business.

Just as well, perhaps, because ebooks are here. Well, not here here. It’s that distance thing again. There’s the odd electronic reader available in Australia. Dymocks purports to sell one, but none of the sales staff know about it, can tell you how it works or find one to show you.

But the good ones the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle which have electronic paper that doesn’t tire your eyes or flood your brain with cortisol; which you can read on the beach or the bus; which will read to you, if you ask them, or change font size; which can take 80 or so books, wirelessly downloaded for 10 bucks a pop, while you’re waiting for a train or dental appointment and which weigh less than 300 grams.

You can’t get these wondrous gadgets in poor, backward Australia. And if you do get one, it’s not guaranteed or serviced, and downloads are problematic. So much for globalism.

But, you know, we were 50 years late getting skyscrapers. The ebook will come, and when it comes, then what? People will still buy books. Some people, some books. But it’s impossible to believe that books, bookshops, libraries or even librarians as we know them will continue to exist.

And publishers? Since Johannes Gutenberg we’ve trusted the publisher as our authorial, authorised portal, our editorial filter between writer-world and reader-world. But that, too, is changing.

Just as newspapers must brace against internet populism, the book world faces the self-publishing hordes. Amazon is already taking advantage, with a self-publishing tool that lets you Kindle your new novel directly.

Maybe it’ll change nothing. Maybe we faithful-as-a-sheepdog Aussies will go on spending our annual $2.4 billion in local bookshops. But me, the minute there’s a Kindle you can read in the bath, I’m gonna have me one. Even if I have to move to Mauritius to do it.

Miranda Devine is on leave.


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