The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Stephen M. Irwin

Stephen M. Irwin is author of The Dead Path (The Darkening in the UK) named Best Horror Title 2010 in the USA’s Reference and User Services Association’s (RUSA) 2011 Reading List. The novel was also an Australian Shadows Award and Aurealis Award finalist.

Like fellow Brisbanite Gary Kemble, Steve is one of the good guys. He’s a tireless supporter of Aussie horror, and he shares his success with his fellow authors whenever he can (such as volunteering for the AHWA Mentor program).

When it comes to books, Steve is respectful of tradition. Here’s his view:

“The Shape of Things to Come”

Books shaped me.  I knew this before I started thinking about this blog post, although I wasn’t sure how books shaped me.  Of course, books have shaped us all: every human on earth today – literate or illiterate, like it or not – has been shaped by the printed book.  Those of us who read novels for pleasure have, I’m sure, each been profoundly changed by one book or more.  And even those who don’t read for pleasure learn from books – textbooks, children’s books, holy books, instructional books.

Now, books are changing.  Just as live music was captured and forever changed by Edison’s wax cylinders, vinyl discs, magnetic tapes, CDs, and MP3s, books have moved from the Epic of Gilgamesh pressed in clay to the miraculous electronic transfer of any of a million works at the press of a touch pad.

But I worry.

Although I am still figuring how books shaped me, I do know where I learned to respect books.  Libraries.  School libraries, of course, where as a student I was obliged to learn the Dewey decimal system and to put books in their right spots on pain of detention, and public council libraries, to which my father (bless him) took me fortnightly and where I borrowed the books available not just to other students, but to anyone in the big wide world.  It was in libraries – particularly public libraries – that I saw people treating books respectfully.  Library patrons choosing books with care, and librarians reshelving and repairing books with perhaps even greater consideration.  It was in public libraries that I learned practically that books belonged not just to me, but to the world.  I learned that, although they should ideally not be read in the bath, stained by gravy or tomato sauce, or shoved under wet towels at the beach, printed books can handle five, ten, twenty years of borrowing by hundreds of different people.  Of course, I did and do read books in the bath, and on sandy holiday beaches, and while eating hot chips with gravy.   But that’s part of what makes reading so enjoyable. A book is a friend, able to take a bit of rough and tumble, a bit of neglect, so long as it knows that you truly, in your heart, care.

When I could afford to buy my own books, I treated them with the same rough respect.  Books – printed books – are precious, yes, but they are also resilient.  They still work when they have sand between the leaves, or a dried blob of iced coffee on page 192.  I own an iPod and an iPhone and an iPad.  But would I want to take my $200, $500, $1000 device to the bath or the beach or hold it in one hand while I feed myself a dripping kebab?  Not with the same ready recklessness.

So what might happen – God forbid – if libraries and independent bookstores ceased to exist?   Certainly, there are websites and online stores where fellow readers can offer their opinions on what’s good and what’s not … but is visiting them a substitute for making the time for that sacred, fortnightly trip in the train or car to the library and seeing there librarians exercise careful custody over their bound charges?  Is an online shop better able to help you select your next written adventure than a person who works every day with books?

And what about the books themselves?  I like seeing these friends on my bookshelves.  Even books I do not enjoy, I take back to the Returns desk in the library, or (if I’ve bought them) drop in the St Vinnie’s bin, knowing someone else will choose them or pass them on.  What do I do with files I care not for on my iThingy?  Click.  Delete.  Gone.  Electronic files are too easily bought and too easily discarded to hold affection for.

As an author, I am delighted that e-book technology is exposing my work to a different type of reading consumer. As a reader, though, I worry. Books are more than just the words contained in them.  They are an experience. Reading is an event: it is a magical transfer of thought that warrants a certain degree of reckless respect.

What will be lost when libraries, small bookstores, and printed books change forever? What shape will we take when our books have no shape at all?

Stephen M. Irwin‘s rampantly successful first novel is available from all good bookstores in Australia, USA, Canada, UK, and elsewhere around the globe. It’s a terrifying (and satisfying!) read!

The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at



  1. I was teaching in a special needs unit today, we were using a Kindle, the student was enjoying reading from it.

    I sometimes wonder if new readers might discover just as much a love of reading experience on a kindle and will then lament when we eventually work out how to install software that displays info directly on to the surface of the eye 🙂

    Libraries, libraries have been changing for decades becoming more community literacy hubs and havens for those that can’t afford the new technology.

    Perhaps we should ask also what is being gained?

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  3. we’re in a transitional period. many of the bumps in the road are nothing more than growing pains and they *will* be resolved.

    i don’t see a day where printed paper books go away. that’s just not in the cards. my books, altho they’re selling 50:1 ebook over paper, are still selling paper — specialty sales like momento and autographed items, bookstores, and libraries are all still buying my books in paper.

    will libraries start offering e-borrows? I hope so. there’s a certain sense to that.

    how will it work? I have no idea. The technology is still too new. maybe register your device with the library catalog the way you get a library card now? maybe libraries will license a special edition of the book that lets them loan out a copy that will expire in two weeks? maybe this whole e-book thing will collapse under the weight of DRM and we’ll enter a “device neutral” age. (Yeah. Ok. That may be too far fetched.)

    But I’m convinced that day of e-loan is coming and it’s coming a heck of a lot faster than any of us can probably forsee. Welcome to the singularity.

    As Gibson has said: “The future is already here. It’s just not uniformly distributed.”