There was an unexpected boost for booksellers this Christmas, as printed books – p-books as they're now known – enjoyed a dramatic last-minute surge in sales.
In the seven days up to December 22, physical books sold better than at any time since Christmas 2009, leading some to announce jubilantly that finally paper-and-ink titles – real books as they're also now known – are fighting back. "Where's yer Kindle noo?" was the chant on their lips.
Not surprisingly, cookbooks and celebrity memoirs accounted for most sales. There was, however, a spike for literary fiction in a rush for film tie-in editions of The Hobbit and Life Of Pi. How other distinguished authors fared is not yet known, but, with the exception of children's picture books, it was never likely that serious fiction and non-fiction would have driven sales. Even in the predigital age, first-class writing was always the poor cousin at Christmas, pushed aside by genre fiction, food, popular histories and lurid biographies. Whatever the questions raised by the sudden popularity of printed books, the status of high literature is not, or should not, be one of them.
Those sceptical that a single good week does not a revolution make are, sadly, right. The December market is a very different animal to the rest of the year, and a brief bucking of the trend might hold out nothing more substantial than a mirage for those as desperate for a glimmer of hope for the printed word as a lost Bedouin for a slurp of water.
Certainly, e-readers sold exceedingly well this Christmas, though analysts suggest the tide is already turning in favour of tablets. Even now, the Kindle and its brethren may be heading inexorably towards the sort of mass extinction last seen with Tamagotchi, due to appear in a few years' time as quaint but defunct artefacts on Antiques Roadshow.
The best thing about Christmas 2012, really, was that it shows that many people have decided that books you can hold are better. This attitude may, of course, be restricted to presents, or titles with illustrations and photographs which, as yet, are only properly reproduceable in e-format on tablet readers. Giving someone an e-book feels distinctly lacklustre compared with the heft and style of a touchable book. However prettily publishers dress up the box in which the e-book sits on the shelf, it still feels insubstantial. Far worse is the magically appearing download, which you can't even wrap in ribbon.
Yet I'd like to think there's more to this resurgence in print than a mere blip on the e-reader's radar. After all, in the same way that iTunes and Spotify have revolutionised the way we listen to music, there has been a steady growth in the sales and cachet of vinyl. Perhaps the book world, a decade behind music in downloading its wares, is going the same way. In other words, as readers become familiar with e-reading, they might become increasingly aware of its deficiences.
These are not restricted to aesthetics or ease of use, although for a reader such as myself these are a big part of the problem. No, there are more serious drawbacks. When Bruce Willis argued with Apple over his iTunes collection, and the fact he could not legally bequeath it to his daughters, a shudder ran through those whose whole musical history is stored online, likewise readers whose library consists of downloads.
The fear that publishers can delete e-books from readers' devices at a whim, as has on occasion happened, is as nothing to the worry that those companies that supply them might one day go out of business. Watching the stock market fluctuations of a seemingly gold-plated firm such as Apple makes it obvious this is not impossible.
Were the unthinkable to happen, those items we have come to consider our own inalienable possessions might simply disappear with them. Thus the generation that has boasted of not cluttering its homes with books, cds and dvds, who take comfort that its purchases are fire and flood-proof, may find itself without any legacy at all.