I was sent to Bangkok as a gift this month. I was to be presented at a party to the host, who had long said he wanted to write a book and whose family thought he would welcome the help of a ghost. The family did not ask me to go to the Orient gift-wrapped, but they did ask me to take with me a mock-up of a possible cover of the book, so that there would be something tangible to be handed over, something that would show instantly what the gift was.
That got me thinking about the place for printed books now that we are all concentrating so hard on understanding the dynamic of the electronic versions. This imaginative idea of the book as a prestigious gift would not have worked so well if presented in e-book form. It would have lacked the cultural resonance of the print version. The recipient of the gift would not have been able to pick it up, turn it over in his hands and pass it round the guests who had assembled for the presentation beneath the hotel’s palm trees.
E-books are undoubtedly the way forward when it comes to getting writers’ work out there, showcasing it, distributing it more economically and ecologically, but when it comes to creating a product with special meaning, and for limited editions that are to be displayed as well as read, print will no doubt live on for a long time. Books that might be read by millions on screens, can still be produced in special editions for hundreds or thousands of collectors and enthusiasts.
The hotel in Bangkok where the four day party was being thrown, was next to a mighty new shopping mall, which had a whole floor dedicated to information and communication. Wandering past the bustling, beautiful stores belonging to brands like Apple, Blackberry and Nokia, I found in the middle of the concourse the most elegantly presented book shop. Half of it was dedicated to English language books and there were hundreds of well displayed, well designed, tempting books. The aisles were full of browsers and there was steady business at the tills. I know very little about the Thai book market. It may well be that retail rents are much lower than in Europe, but whatever the reason it was a wonderful experience to find books so integrated into this very modern shopping experience, seeing them finding their place amongst the Smart phones and tablets. It seemed like a glimpse into an harmonious future, bringing the works of writers to readers in an attractive way that we are still only stumbling towards in Britain.