22nd September 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin
Serious non-fiction, many in the book trade will tell you, is in serious trouble. Lists are being cut, advances to authors are dropping and the impressive sales figures once achieved by distinguished writers are rarely seen. And the halcyon days of the learned tome are undoubtedly behind us, especially given that the inflation in hardback prices that facilitates artificially vast discounts does no favours to the more traditional markets which once accounted for so many sales.
But while headline sales figures may be in decline, there is a remarkable range of midlist and backlist titles seeing very healthy sales indeed, at least amongst those retailers responding adequate to customer demand.
We live in an age of information overload, but far from narrowing the appeal of books, this underlines how superior a source of knowledge books can often be. Instant journalism results in superficial coverage lacking in insight. Even the most intelligent of television programmes feels the need to parade itself as entertainment; watching Carl Sagan's seminal 1980 series Cosmos recently, I was treated to a level of intellectual engagement utterly absent in today's programming, most notably in its yoking together of disparate disciplines.
Print journalism is becoming terminally undermined by bias and political agenda, not to mention the sort of ethical issues that forced the closure of the News of the World. It also tends to simplify many issues to be the point of being wrong; science is a notable casualty here. And the world wide web is so lacking in quality control that even the most net-savvy of us find it tricky to isolate the facts from the froth and falsehood. (It's also eroding our critical faculties, as any teacher who has read an essay based largely on information gleaned from Wikipedia will tell you, and indeed one of the failings of our education system is to produce students who can pass exams but do not know how to learn.)
Books, however, have largely retained their perceived authority; several hundred pages on a topic will at the very least seem thorough. Those seeking insight and understanding must turn to books.
There are also reasons why knowledge has become a precious commodity. Globalisation means that things which might once have seemed remote affect us directly.
Popular science is experiencing a golden age not seen since the original publication of A Brief History of Time: complex scientific issues such as genetics, climatology and the properties of the quantum world directly affect our lives and the policies are leaders make, so there is a desire to be informed.
History has broadened to take in much more than just empires and battles and kings: social history, recalling the everyday lives, offers insights into previous generations not as exhaustively documented as the present one and tells us about how our societies came to be they way are.
The shared knowledge of how the world can practically - not merely ideologically - be made a happier and safer place, as outlined in books such as The Spirit Level and John Lanchester's Whoops!, puts that power into all our hands, not just the politically astute and the well-connected. Knowledge is, after all, power and books allow that power to be shared amongst us all.
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