Saturday, 1 May 2010

Silver Devices

On a bench in the park sits a youth staring at a silver device. Bigger than a phone, smaller than a laptop. The sun’s up. He’s reading Dan Brown on his Sony Book Reader. The future has reached Waterloo Gardens in Penylan.

You can store a thousand titles on these slippery things, an entire library, more books than my parents ever had at one time in their entire house. More titles than my school games master read in his entire life.

They are not yet ubiquitous, these readers, but they, or something like them, will before too long. When the book is read you delete it or store it. And because of the publisher’s paranoid systems of digital rights management you can’t hand it on.

Oxfam won’t get it. The church jumble will be reduced. The second hand book trade is fast coming to an end.

There was a time when south Wales boasted scores of such stores. Backstreet warrens, market stalls. There was – and still is, because they haven’t quite vanished yet – a great pleasure in fumbling through stacks of dusty volumes hunting for bargains or enlightenment or that out of print title by Jack Jones you’d heard rumour of but never seen.

John Freeman’s vast enterprise on the corner of Bridge Street in Cardiff, more or less where John Lewis stands now, had more stock than Harrods. The place was a maze of stack, box and shelf. The owner professed an ability to locate anything instantly. Do you want to buy these paperbacked Ian Flemings, I’d ask. Nah, got dozens of those downstairs.

Nothing I ever wanted to sell ever appeared to have any value. The market, such as it was, was always for things I didn’t own. I’d drag myself back home with my box of ex-review paperbacks. I stuffed them once into a corporation litter bin on Queen Street. Left them in telephone boxes. Handed them for free to passing youths.

Today the antiquarian trade works out of web sites and auction houses. Stock is bought and sold without the trader ever having to leave his phone. On the net everything has a market value and anything is findable. Today on Abe books I located 1723 copies of things by Jack Jones. Admittedly some of them were by Jack Jones, the rhymer of cockney slang, a few were about Jack Jones the trade unionist, two were by a Jack Jones who’d written about John Lennon. But a lot were for Bidden to the Feast, Off to Philadelphia, Give Me Back My Heart and Rhondda Roundabout.

The thrill of the chase has gone. Jack is everywhere, if you want him. Although I’m not sure if he’s available yet for the Sony Reader. But I’d best check.

For those into these things the Rhys Davies Trust and the Academi have just published a free set of 16 black and white author postcards. One depicts Jack Jones. Call 02920472266 for your set.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 31st April, 2010. That's what the date is on my watch, a DKNY fashionista miracle.



Ivy said...

It feels like something is dying (an era? a time for books?) but I hope something will take its place.

And while there seems to be a culture for publishing words online, it's worth noting the counter-culture for creating beautiful handmade objects, such as limited-edition poetry pamphlets and chapbooks.

To me, it's all so beautiful and so ephemeral.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the second-hand bookshop is threatened (although there are still plenty of good ones out here, in the West). But I have always felt that one of their greatest merits were that they were places where you could turn up something that you didn’t know existed.

Robert Nisbet