As Anthony Burgess once commented, there is no better reason for not reading a book than having it, but an exception should be made for Jacques Bonnet’s “Phantoms on the Bookshelves,” just out this month. It appears at a time when books and literature as we have known them are undergoing a great and perhaps catastrophic change. A tide is coming in and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away. The physical possession of a book may become of little significance. Access to it will be what matters, and when the book is closed, so to speak, it will disappear into the cyber. It will be like the genie—summonable but unreal.
Books are 500 years old? Really? There were no books before Gutenberg? Thank you for this enlightening news, Mr. Salter. Now, while you’re at it, please explain something else to me: I just read Francis Spufford’s extraordinary book Red Plenty on my iPad. I thought that was a “real” experience, but according to you it was not. There was no “solitude and discovery” after all. Pray explain that to me. Explain to me how my experience of the book is not real but would have been real if I had read the book as a paper codex. I eagerly await your answer.