It is with understandable frequency that discussions nowadays develop between friends and acquaintances and myself about the economics of the book industry. To name the two most obvious stimuli to these interchanges: the emergence of e-books has thrown a very inquisitive spanner into the works of traditional pricing models, and the dominance of on-line retailing, combined with aggressive price promotion in general, has contributed to the demise of many physical bookshops. I take a wistful pleasure in reminding or informing those of my acquaintance who have been less intimate with the book trade, that there once was a land in which almost all books were obliged to be, by statute, sold at the recommended retail price and that this land was Britain between 1900 and 1997. One of the arguments advanced by advocates of the Net Book Agreement, especially before the Internet had been handed out so widely, was that there was a social and cultural benefit to bookshops existing in communities and that, deprived of an easy and accessible route to literature, entire towns and villages would experience a decay in sensibility which would lead to a gradual dissolution of shared values, lower intellectual capacities, gangs of semi-literate feral children roaming the streets and eventually X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent.
This argument - that books are important, or even essential to society - has reasserted itself in the apparently blatant contradiction that e-books are subject to VAT whereas their fleshier counterparts skip gaily around the faery circle of exemption. It would be interesting to construct a justification for this anomaly. I would suggest arguing that paper books are more vital to the social fabric because - through their presence on bookshelves - they provide vital clues to the character, culture and psychology of those people into whose homes one is for the first time setting foot. Without these signposts, relationships, would be more difficult to build, networking would suffer and the impact on business could be catastrophic. On the other hand, immediately detecting a few yards of decent literary fiction, a sprinkling of classics, some poetry and recent credible works of popular science, would signal that their owners are well-rounded, intelligent and sensitive people, and enable one to circumvent much of the usual ice-breaking and cultural probing that is required to reach this conclusion. The time thus saved, I have estimated by use of Squibble's Divergent Oscillating algorithm, would enable two major hospitals or four and a half international manufacturing contracts to be constructed.
There is also, of course, the counter-argument that reading is simply a form of entertainment which has been varnished with an illegitimate lustre of significance and worth by an oppressive, elitist stratum of society that, while it rails against The Only way is Essex, actually owns all the boxed sets and watches them while pretending to be enjoying existential European films. I exaggerate this position a teeny bit for effect. This being the case, books should be treated, in terms of social status, tax and economics, as are Cd's, DVDs or their downloaded equivalents. The one remaining exception ought to be educational texts, for obvious reasons. We could then have enormous fun with readers claiming VAT rebates by filling in wildly complicated forms in an attempt to establish that, for example, reading Kafka's novels taught them that life is a puzzling and painful existential riddle, attempting to answer which only makes it more intractable. HMRC inspectors could then visit and interrogate the claimants to establish whether such works had, indeed, properly imparted such lessons to them, or whether they had only read the 'Meaning and Significance' sections in Coles' Notes.
I shall leave you with the words of the saintly Kurt Vonnegut on this subject, although you must run them through your own irony filters as you see fit:
'Do writers have a right to strike?'
I just can't help thinking what a real shake up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems...'
'And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?' I demanded.
'They'd die more like mad dogs, I think--snarling & snapping at each other & biting their own tails.'
I turned to Castle the elder. 'Sir, how does a man die when he's deprived of the consolation of literature?.
'In one of two ways,' he said, 'petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.'
'Neither one very pleasant, I expect.' I suggested.
'No,' said Castle the elder. 'For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!'