Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

So, Farewell Then, Illuminated Manuscripts

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

So, Farewell Then, Illuminated Manuscripts

Article excerpt

A senior publisher told me, the other day that everything is, fine, except that books are not selling very well. In my experience, information about the publishing industry is invariably anecdotal. There are no objective facts, except for the bottom line, which most of us don't get to see, and even that can be fiddled. So you glean what you can, and then fit your latest piece of gossip into a wider jigsaw.

I purchase fewer books than I used to, and the same goes for most people I know. The books I really want to buy invariably cost nearer [pounds]40 than [pounds]20, so I rarely buy them. I am predisposed, therefore, to believe that books in general are not selling well.

Then I read articles by the literary pundits of the Observer. According to Robert McCrum, their literary editor and previously fiction editor at Faber, everyone is giving up on long books. We are buying short books instead which, McCrum points out, with the inevitable sense of exhaustion of a literary editor sentenced to watching 100,000 books cross his desk every year, are "ideal for modern life". They answer our need for "brevity, simplicity and precision".

That is all of a pattern with another recent snippet of news which revealed that no one can face a full-length symphony any longer. Apparently we now prefer to buy recordings of "highlights" from Dvorak's Fifth or Beethoven's Ninth, since we no longer have time to listen to anything longer.

Nicci Gerrard, another Observer pundit, reported research that suggests we are actually reading more books, even though we don't buy them. Gerrard, who was trying to write a culturally upbeat article in a newspaper which otherwise exemplifies the "dumbing down" we have all had to accept, went on to reveal that what people like to read is "popular science".

Some years ago, I sat on the panel of judges of the annual science book prize sponsored by Rhone-Poulenc, one of the loveliest names in all multinational business (imagine a Chardonnay-Stockhausen). …

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