Category Archives: Features

Is The Book an Endangered Species?

Originally written for Wessex Scene.

Before the launch of the iPad, Apple boss Steve Jobs predicted a gloomy outlook for the future of literature, claiming that ‘people don’t read any more’.  After thousands of years of great writing and an increasingly literate global population, is this the generation where reading dies?

As the popularity of the iPad and the sale of millions of e-books have testified, Steve Jobs was mistaken in his assumption.  Writers, readers and publishers everywhere may heave a sigh of relief, because we may be on the brink of the biggest publishing development since the invention of the printing press.

This summer Amazon announced that sales of e-books were outstripping those of hardbacks, with the website selling 143 e-books for every 100 hardbacks.

Although paperback sales are still greater than those of e-books, these could be the first signs of a shift in our reading habits.

Anyone can see why taking a lightweight, portable e-reader or tablet computer on holiday is easier than lugging around a suitcase full of books, making e-books a welcome alternative to paperbacks. They are not, however, a replacement.  Having a digital library of titles can never match the aesthetic pleasure of looking at a bookcase lined with a rainbow of colourful spines; scrolling down text on a screen is not the same as flicking through the well-worn pages of a favourite book.

For me and for many other avid readers, owning a book is almost as important as reading it.  Particularly if, as a cash-strapped student, you trawl round the charity shops and second-hand bookstores to find cheap bargains; a book has a whole history that an electronic file cannot rival.

Admittedly, e-books offer levels of interactivity that will appeal to our YouTube generation of technology-savvy consumers who are looking for everything faster, bigger and easier.  Reading will now be packaged as a multimedia experience – how long will it be before we have trailers for the next bestseller?

I am all for progress, but I do not think that newer is necessarily better and I will always be a subscriber to the old-school style of reading, no matter how unfashionable.  Readers do not need a range of interactive features, a good book should be an enveloping, absorbing experience in itself with no need for enhancement.  After all, the imagination surpasses anything that can be created on the screen of a computer or iPad.

Nevertheless, there is one notable benefit to these new publishing developments: they are enticing more  and more people into reading.  With any luck those who are lured in by the flashy reading experience offered by the iPad will later discover the joy of owning a book and will carry the pleasure of reading into future generations.

I can’t help but whole-heartedly disagree with the idea that the paperback is dying as e-books take their place. All I can say is, instant coffee didn’t get rid of ground coffee, and the same goes for this debate. Mr. Jobs, Iam afraid you are very wrong; people are certainly still reading, and long may it continue.

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Lost Literary Rebels

Originally written for Wessex Scene.

Whatever happened to the literary rebel? Once upon a time the writer could soar to rock star status, could be a subversive outsider, could change the world. Questions about the place of the writer in today’s society seem particularly apt as cinema celebrates one of the great literary outsiders, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, in the recently released Howl.  Part documentary, part dramatisation, the film tells the story behind the poem of the title and its subsequent obscenity trial, starring James Franco as Ginsberg.  With another Beat-related film in the works – an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s great Beat Generation manifesto On the Road – there seems to be a marked revival of interest in the mid-twentieth century writers who held up two fingers to society.

Literature protesting against the establishment and offering an alternative world vision goes back far beyond the Beats. Writers such as Ginsberg and Kerouac took inspiration from the giants of the Romantic age, men and women who broke away from the established literary and social conventions at the turn of the nineteenth century. While the dominant literature of the eighteenth century was based on a tradition of emulation and allusion, the Romantic ideology espoused originality and imagination, coupled with a deep appreciation of nature. Many of the Romantic poets were also rebels in a political as well as a literary sense; Wordsworth was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution in his early career, while Shelley had a distinctly political poetic output. Neither were the Romantics the first or only literary rebels before the Beats, with a long succession of writers breaking away from the establishment and creating controversial work.

The ultimate literary rebel was Byron, possibly the most outrageous of the Romantics and remembered now more for his hedonistic lifestyle than his poetry. Famed among other things for his sexual exploits and for keeping a tame bear while at Cambridge, Byron was one of the first truly international celebrities, travelling extensively across Europe during his life and dying young while championing the cause of Greek independence. The spirit of Byron, the literary rock star, could be seen rekindled in the wild, alcohol and drug fuelled antics of the Beats, whose initially apolitical philosophy would later evolve into the hippie movement that protested against the Vietnam War.

Today, however, popular protest literature is dying out and the literary rogue seems to be a thing of the past. The closest we can claim to Byron in the current generation of writers is Martin Amis, the media’s bad boy of literature, but his exploits hardly live up to those of the Romantics or the Beats. This is not to suggest that writers no longer attempt to make controversial or political points in their work, which is far from true, but no current literary figure or movement has created the same waves as the Beats or the Romantics. This may have something to do with how literature is viewed in our society, somehow enveloped within the establishment and incapable of being considered subversive in the same way as more modern art forms such as popular music or film. The political statements of our age will be made on big screens or blaring out from loudspeakers.

But perhaps we need dissenting literary voices now more than ever. As we face the harshest economic conditions for decades and political discontent spreads throughout the country, this disillusionment needs an outlet and literature can be a far more eloquent platform for such protest than other more popular mediums. Perhaps the new literary generation, in the same way that the Beats before them were inspired by the Romantics, might receive impetus from Howl and identify with the radical project of Ginsberg and his contemporaries. While it may be a bit much to hope that a writer could single-handedly change the world, there are times when literature, and society, just need a rebel.

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OMG! Oxford English Dictionary Embraces Modernity

Originally written for Wessex Scene.

How much can you say in 140 characters? Not much, you might think, but this small chunk of language is increasingly rife in the digital age.

That opening paragraph, in case you were wondering, was 140 characters exactly. But for those wanting to squeeze more into ever shrinking units of communication, the easiest way is to use abbreviations or, as the Oxford English Dictionary has dubbed them, initialisms. This is part of a move to include common textspeak abbreviations such as OMG, LOL and FYI into their updated online edition, as well as adding a whole raft of slang terms from Wag to muffin top.

We may all be familiar with these initialisms and a host of others, but it would probably surprise most of us to learn that in fact the first use of OMG was in a personal letter dating from 1917, while FYI originates from the language of memoranda in 1941. The desire to fit more into less is nothing new, it would appear. When it comes to the English language, is less really more?

England manager Fabio Capello certainly thinks so; he commented to reporters that he needs a vocabulary of a mere 100 words in order to talk tactics with his players. While he probably did not mean this figure to be taken literally, it is worth asking just how many words we use on a daily basis and if the demands of our increasingly digital and fast-paced lives make much of our language’s rich vocabulary defunct.

No such worries dogged the writers of the past, with literary figures such as Chaucer and Shakespeare even throwing words of their own creation into the mix. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Bard introduced over 1,500 words to the English language, while Chaucer clocked up a whopping 2,027. Charles Dickens, meanwhile, can boast more than 200 words to his name and the Daily Telegraph has made 250 additions, including the first use of the now infamous alcopop back in 1997.

The decision to add initialisms to the Oxford English Dictionary may be controversial and will prompt the harbingers of doom to bemoan the deterioration of the English language, but perhaps we should be celebrating the continued growth of our vocabulary. While the pervasion of textspeak into more of our language might not be the most encouraging development, the continual expansion of the English language is a vital sign of life; our vocabulary has not been denigrated to Capello’s 100 word range just yet.

As for the growing fashion to shrink language into easily digestible chunks, this can be seen as a new challenge to the flexibility and inventiveness of our vocabulary. While many tweets are filled with barely comprehensible abbreviations, some have embraced the possibilities of Twitter to play with language in fresh, exciting ways. One such experimentation with words is the growth of Twitter fiction, with users attempting to write stories in no more than 140 characters.

Some fear that textspeak will begin to take over written language, while in his recent book The Language Wars, Henry Hitchings speculated that the apostrophe is on the way out, but the plain fact is that there is no way of knowing what is next for the English language. What is clear, however, is that it will not be going down without a fight.

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