Books written by Ray Sullivan

Monday, 12 November 2012

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Since Gutenberg had his big idea, books have changed lives.  They've imparted wisdom, humour, excitement and pleasure.  There have been a few dogs along the way, but that's art for you.  With the exception of a few notable examples, most of the books printed between the invention of the press and a few years ago have quietly found their way to landfill, recycling or have been used as kindling in long dark winters.

Because once we've read a book, with few exceptions, we don't revisit it.  Historically a printed copy has been passed around the family and friends before being thrown away; some copies have been read and re-read due to being stored in a library, but ultimately most of the books ever printed don't exist anymore.  And those that do are probably sat on bookshelves unread for decades and will remain there until the ultimate ignominy - the house clearance that marks the final act in our lives.

While I'm sure someone from the British Library can hazard a guess at the total number of unique books published ever and can probably point you towards actual copies of many of them, in reality the majority of books from the distant through to recent past don't exist at all any more.  One of the main reasons for this is because printing books was an expensive process, actually still is, and consequently once a book fell below a  predetermined level of sales it wasn't printed any more.

So, at any given point in time there were only so many titles in print and for a long time there have been more titles out of print than in.  But now we're in the eBook era and any books published electronically will, technically, live forever.  Is that a good thing?  Is it even desirable?

Sure, many books will date.  Some will date within days of publication, others will last a few years.  Some, very few I suspect, will become classics like the works of Austin and Dickens.  But all will be available forever.  Many will appear timeless because they are deliberately locked in a specified period in time, such as Nineteen Fifties Americana gumshoe novels, others will be placed in an undefined 'near future' that is never reached.  Detective stories, high adventures, pure romance, we'll always want them.  Language will evolve to make the older works sound strange, archaic - and of course those books that try to predict the future will always be hopelessly way off beam when compared to the true passage of technology development - but a yarn is a yarn, right?

So some books, more than traditionally considered normal, will still be available many years after the author has shrugged his or her mortal coil and may, possibly, satisfy a whole new generation of readers.  But we're witnessing an interesting phenomenon right now that I believe is only going to increase - not only has every person got a book inside of them, as the adage goes, they all seem to be publishing the bloody things .  So there's a lot of new books hitting the eBookstalls every day.  Some are poor, some are OK, many are damned fine reads and a very small number, in strict proportion to how it has always been, are exceptional.

So this is good, yes?  Well, maybe.  I don't know about you, but I find looking for books to read to be a bit of a chore, trawling through lists of books on Amazon or Smashwords or whichever eBookseller you prefer. Sure, we're given tools to help us choose.  Amazon have a daily deal which increasingly seems to be pushing books I wouldn't impose on my worst enemy's Kindle.  I have a theory that right now they are pushing KDP Select titles, but can't prove that at the moment.

All the eBook sellers provide tools to filter down, but these are pretty blunt tools.  Even if I knew what my favourite sub-genre was, I'd probably name it something different to whatever Amazon and co decide to call it.  I'm not even sure what sub-genre my own books should belong in, and I know them as well as anyone could, so I have difficulty in deciding on what the correct sub-genre I want to read from is called.  For the record, I think my non comedic novels are science based thriller or adventure stories, but that usually translates as Sci-Fi.  Sure, some of the science I use is theoretical in nature, but it really does occupy and feed real clever people around the planet, other speculative science I use is practical and being developed as we speak.  But the science is only part of the vehicle for the stories, so perhaps the science bit is a red herring.  Perhaps I ought to classify my books by what they're not - they're not vampire teenage romance fantasy porn, for example.

But I digress.  The point is, finding a good book is difficult and with the immortality we're facing for books, is going to get a whole lot harder.  I think we can discount best seller lists if we want to find something that is good and new, even if we can trust them.  Let's face it, the likes of Apple and Amazon are hardly falling over themselves to qualify how books get on the lists.  Then there's user reviews.  Some are really helpful, some are highly questionable.  Most probably don't accurately reflect the general opinion, certainly I've found many reviews to be more generous about a book than I would be, while others are unnecessarily harsh.

Trawling through the lists of books is pointless; a great title and superb cover may draw you to read the blurb, but that is still a terrible way to choose a book, let alone judge it.  Titles and covers are art forms in their own right and the skills to write a really good blurb are way different to the skills needed to write a killer novel - many authors will readily agree that the three hundred word blurb took proportionately longer to write than the three hundred thousand word opus it describes.  But a good title, great cover and superlative blurb do not guarantee a half decent book and I suspect I've breezed past many a great book in a dismissive manner because I've made a shallow negative judgement about the title or cover.

Personal recommendation from someone you know and trust has got to be a powerful and accurate way of finding books, but finding that person is always going to be a challenge.  Finding that a person you know and trust also likes the same kind of book as yourself is a coincidence worthy of an eBook plotline, in fact.

So, how do we find the books we want to read?  I think that there needs to be a tool that provides a better way of drilling down, something that pulls the essence of a book out in a way that helps us to decide whether it is for us or not.  I don't know the answer but I think I stumbled across a possible way forward the other day.  I noticed a Tweet from a fellow author who asked whether his writing style was more like John Le Carre or Graham Greene.  I nearly replied with 'I don't know, which was the most arrogant?' but I resisted.  However there is mileage in this approach.  All books have something in common with other, previous books.  Think of any really successful and popular book and it is likely that you can relate it to another book, often by an earlier author.  It's all about standing on the shoulders of giants, if we're sensible and read widely enough.

My idea is that we start a database that readers use to map books together by - not just the best and most successful but any that they've read that they think have a positive link to other books they've read.  Not copies but in style, genre, pace, detail.  Initially the list will be worthless, but over time, with enough help from the many good readers on this planet a web will form and once you've read a book and enjoyed it you could follow the book's web and find out what other books are considered to be related in a positive way.

By doing this we can build a map of the world of books that may make their immortality worthwhile.  I won't be constructing this database, by the way, because I'm too busy right now writing my latest book about a seventeen year old blood sucking nymphomaniac with a penchant for humping the occupants of middle for diddle earth.  And I've no idea if it will be linked to any other books that have passed before it, but it's possible!


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