By the time you read this, I will be in deepest Wigtownshire.
How deep I'm not yet sure, as accommodation has still to be confirmed. It could be the heart of Wigtown, or somewhere in the empty countryside nearby, where the only noise comes from grazing cattle and late-night owls. Regardless, it's a visit I'm looking forward to, and not only because it's the first weekend of the annual Wigtown Book Festival, one of the most bijou and characterful of those on the circuit.
There's something winsome about this part of the world, whatever the time of year. Whenever you mention it, faces light up and admirers begin to coo and sigh over its many attractions. For a place often romantically described as a "forgotten corner", an awful lot of folk have been there.
Much of this is thanks to its status, since 1997, as Scotland's National Book Town. It has more good second-hand bookshops within a few minutes of each other than Charing Cross Road, and over the years it's become a destination for those who can think of no better way to spend a day than wandering from one shelf to another, squirreling away books to last them through the next few months.
Founding a book festival was an inspired move, spreading the word about the town's charms, and in turn bolstering its literary credentials and the fortunes of its bookshops. And now that Wigtown has secured a £50,000 Creative Places award, more money will soon be spent on cultural attractions, as the book festival programme is extended across the year and a residential creative writing course is established.
Only one troubling thought intrudes on this idyll. As the book festival gets into its stride, and the authors' sumptuous green room grows loud with the cracking of lobster claws and bad literary jokes, a spectre hangs over this, and indeed every, book festival. The physical book, we are told, is dying. The onward march of the e-book is gathering pace, and soon paper will be a relic of an age unimaginably primitive and alien. Given that none of us can imagine how we lived before the advent of the mobile phone, it might be only a few years before the idea of holding an object formed of pulped tree and glue seems quaint, and a little ridiculous.
One of the events at Wigtown – at noon today – is a tribute to the late Ray Bradbury. While his imagination was fired by the future, Bradbury was resolutely against e-books. But if anybody could come up with a glimpse of what tomorrow holds for writers and readers, it would have been him. In his absence, and assuming the panellists aren't thinking of holding a seance, we'll just have to work it out for ourselves.
Since book festivals were invented as a forum for writers and readers to meet, that won't change much, even if books can be downloaded while a writer talks, thus avoiding the shop queue afterwards. I expect it's also already possible to autograph e-books, although as the debate rages over who actually owns them once the original downloader dies, there'll likely be no monetary value in a signature, nor the same kudos as when friends could discover a fulsome greeting in a book left casually lying around.
Of far greater concern, though, is that much of the pleasure of book festivals, and Wigtown in particular, is what happens between author sessions. It's when you are browsing books, flicking between chapters, deciding on a gift for someone else or a treat for yourself, that its magic gets to work. This, after all, is when you start up conversations with strangers who share your taste, or whose choices pique your interest. If we're all staring into inscrutable screens instead, won't it be less sociable?
More alarming still, what will be the fate of the second-hand treasure houses that make Wigtown so special? No doubt authors will still attract crowds, but without hordes making a beeline for the bookshops, I fear the atmosphere will be immeasurably different. It will be like a wedding without a cake – worse, without a bride!