The book is dead. Long live the book, says John Purcell

by |May 25, 2011

The book is terminally ill, say those in the know, and lies near death in a private hospital plugged into a life support machine and surrounded by close friends and relatives. Right now, across the world commentators are drafting moving eulogies. Commemorative plates and tea towels are being made. Songs are being written. A mini-series is planned. TV people are putting together five minute montages for the news bulletins which touch on the book’s long and varied history

Everyone is preparing themselves for news because no one wants to be caught off guard. At any moment word may come. The book is dead.

But then, isn’t this is all rather familiar? I grew up in the seventies and eighties and back then top people had said something similar. They said that while the whole world was off watching TV the book had died of neglect in a rented apartment, friendless and alone. A few learned souls, a loneliness of dust-covered professors and dowdy librarians, had even been brought in to identify the corpse.

There had been no elaborate funeral planned for the book then. A pauper’s grave had awaited, and there, we were told, the book had been unceremoniously dumped. No one had wept.

Back then when the news had broken, people had been genuinely surprised to learn that the book had been living amongst them at all, they had assumed the book had died long ago. The book seemed to belong to another age altogether. The dark age before TV.

I suppose the prophets of doom did have a point. I’m sure I remember teachers teaching literature to students who had never read for pleasure. These were teachers who would no sooner expect a student to read outside the requirements of the curriculum than their colleague, the Latin teacher, would expect students to speak Latin outside of the classroom. And, really, these English teachers, the poor servants of an absent master, could only go through the motions. I imagine that any rare successes served only to underline the futility of the whole enterprise. For, to all concerned, the book was dead.

And where imagination still existed, it was nourished by a thin broth of TV and, beyond the thrall of the TV, film. It is easy to forget just how dominant TV was. There was no real competition from any other medium. For thirty years TV ruled unchallenged. Those living in its shadow soon took ill. First the book, and then film. To survive, film pumped out grandiose spectacles of a kind TV could not emulate. Star Wars, Superman, Jaws. But these did not save film. It was the video player that saved film. When film entered the home via the rented video cassette, it occupied the TV. And TV began speaking a new language. The video reintroduced the beginning, middle and end, the natural rhythm of the imagination, which TV had abandoned with its endless stream of programming.

Then the damnedest thing happened, the rhythm of film revived the wider world’s interest in the book. Some discovered that certain films were based on books. On one man’s books in particular, too. As I recall it, the book rose from the dead, beckoned out of the grave by the imagination of Stephen King. Suddenly a few teens were reading. They were choosing to read. They were turning off TVs. This faint heartbeat gave the book a fragile existence.

But the book had never really been dead, had it? No. And the book won’t die now, will it? No.

The book has always lead a double life – a private life and a public one. In the book’s public life its health is judged by sales, media coverage, popular influence and contemporary relevance. In the seventies and eighties because sales dwindled, because media coverage was negative, because its popular influence was nil and because it had no contemporary relevance, the book’s public life did meet its end in a pauper’s grave. And no one wept.

But the book lived on its private life. The wider world does not monitor the health of the book in its private life because it only recognises the book’s public face. Which is to be expected. The public face is a commodity, while in private the book is not bound by the expectations and conventions of business. Its value does not fluctuate according to the whims of commerce, for its value comes from within not from without.

The most baffling thing about the private life of the book, and this is why it doesn’t get any press, is that it belongs to everyone and therefore no one person in particular. So it is both priceless and worthless in the same breath.

The wider world can get excited about books when, as in the case of J.K. Rowling, someone makes a squillion dollars writing them. There is a story to tell and one that is easy to quantify. Books suddenly have a monetary value which can be compared with other commodities.

While I credit Stephen King with raising the public life of books from the dead, it wasn’t until the release and subsequent success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and its sequels, that the book was able to walk without the aid of nurses. J.K. Rowling did more for the book than can be measured. The success of these books changed the way people thought about books and reading. Harry Potter Inc. took the book back to the days of its greatest successes – back to the days when Charles Dickens was the most famous man on the planet.

And yet suddenly, when the book seems at its most vigorous, when more people than ever are reading, when publishers and booksellers are finally making some money from the thankless enterprise, news comes that the book is ill, terminally so.

But the news is false – a rumour started by an accountant at work in unimaginative publishing house. Both the public and private manifestations of the book are well. More than well, robust. In a digital world of unimpeded exchanges of information, of open ended discourse, of perpetual updates and addenda, the book is a refuge, a closed circuit, something complete, a place where captured thoughts have ripened and matured. Truth be told, the wider public has developed the habit of thinking well about the book so that today there are more readers than ever before, reading more widely than ever before, with access to more books than ever before. So regardless of the format the wider public chooses to read – hardback, paperback or digital – until they can be persuaded that an alternative is better, the book, with it’s beginning, middle and end, is here to stay.

Were all publishing to cease and were all writers to fall silent the book would still live on. No-one can undo what has already been achieved. Our future, as our history, is permanently coupled with the book. So much so that when the end does come, it will be the end for both the book and humanity, which leaves no-one to make the pronouncement – the book is dead.

Do you share my faith in the longevity of the book? Or do you think the book is doomed?
Leave a your comments below.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

Follow John: Twitter Website


  • May 25, 2011 at 10:07 am

    I *love* this post. I love this line: “Our future, as our history, is permanently coupled with the book.” I love the idea of the book having a public and private life. I love that in a world of 140 character tweets and 2 minute You Tube clips and soundbites and links, that when I get online the most vigorous and interesting discussions I have are always about books. I love- while I hate- that I have, at last count, 15 books under my bed waiting to be read, oodles more jotted in my diary to be sought out and more books I want to re-read than I could ever get through. I love that last night at my daughter’s gym class I was so engrossed in the end of a book (The Life by Malcolm Knox) that a complete stranger had to nudge me, twice, to point out my daughter who had climbed to the top of the gym on the rope and was waving at me so furiously trying to get my attention that it was lucky she didn’t fall off.

    The book, indeed, lives. Bravo! And thank God this means that Elton John won’t have to sing at its funeral.

    • May 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

      Ha ha! Elton John singing at the funeral! I hadn’t thought of that – how tragic would it be?
      How brilliantly you write, Dr Ladd. Your comments are the best thing about posting blogs.

  • May 25, 2011 at 10:52 am

    This report of my death was an exaggeration.

    The Book

  • May 25, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Thank you John. You have just said what I have been saying. The book may morph into another form as well as the present one, but it will never die. It has too many lovers to support it.

    • May 25, 2011 at 11:53 am

      I misread your last sentence: I read – It has too many lovers to support.
      I like the idea of the book having lovers to support.

      And I like your intended point too.

      Thanks for your comment, Elaine.

  • May 25, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    It will live on. Sure, this is coming from someone who still uses a VHS on a daily basis and doesn’t own an iPhone, but I believe it to be true.

    Plus, my greatest pleasure is to read in the bath. I can’t take an electrical device into there for both electrocution reasons and also, I am very clumsy and would kill a Kindle within the first week.

    Also, with an eleven year old who could honestly choose any medium she wanted to fill her time with, 7 times out of ten, she will be reading a book. Again and again and again. This might be in her genes, actually no doubt it is, but it proves to me it’s a natural instinct to enjoy reading a book.

    Fantastic post John. You have a major way with words. 🙂

    • May 25, 2011 at 4:05 pm

      VHS player. To use a VHS everyday is just plain weird.

    • May 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm

      Thanks Bern.
      I’ve just been over at Mamamia reading your post! I love the way you deal with the subject. You cut through the crap (can I say that?).

      Love this:

      Also, with an eleven year old who could honestly choose any medium she wanted to fill her time with, 7 times out of ten, she will be reading a book. Again and again and again. This might be in her genes, actually no doubt it is, but it proves to me it’s a natural instinct to enjoy reading a book.

  • May 25, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    I totally agree, and your examples of the up and down waves of the interest in books are spot on. There were other authors who helped during those spikes, but you definitely hit on the leaders. I also think during Pottermania, the Twilight series brought another injection of readers who hadn’t previously done much reading for pleasure. They have continued to read and devour books by other authors.

  • May 26, 2011 at 12:51 am

    Excellent article! I wholly agree!

  • Margareta O

    May 26, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Very well said. I hadn’t thought about the so called ‘demise’ of the book in terms of the reincarnation of various forms of media over the decades. Very well put. Particularly love your sentence ‘The book is a refuge … a place where captured thoughts have ripened and matured.” With your permission, I’m going to stick this up on my wall to remind me, as a writer, to make sure I do just that!

    Do you think we could get Elton John to sing the ‘Hallelujah’ for the book instead?

    • May 26, 2011 at 9:28 am

      Thank you, Margareta.

      You have my permission quote it and my permission to link to it and to tell your friends to have a read!

      I think we should lobby the UN to prevent Elton John from ever doing a cover of ‘Hallelujah’! 🙂

      Thank you, again.

  • Linda

    May 26, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Books aren’t going anywhere. As in previous generations, those who love them will teach (or show, really) their children to love them… and so it goes.

    The trickier part is teaching kids to love books when their parents aren’t big readers. Library programs in schools seem to build good foundations for this.

    My son – who is obsessed with Wii, games, Pokemon, my laptop and so on – still beams with delight when it’s library day.

    • May 26, 2011 at 11:35 am

      Thanks for your comment Linda,
      I have a shocking history to reveal. My father is a big reader but I did not read as a child. In the dying days of my HSC year a friend, knowing I wasn’t a reader but also understanding me better than I did myself, handed me a copy of Catch-22. From that moment I was hooked. My English teacher, stunned by this development, then fed me Hemingway, EM Froster etc. My whole life changed.

  • B101

    June 10, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Written anything yourself yet John? Perhaps a good way of keeping books alive..

    • June 10, 2011 at 7:33 am

      I write all the time. One day some crazy person might decide to publish what I have written. But then my book may just become the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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