Rearranging the bookshelf
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As technology changes, readers are best served by a mix of old and new players
The week now ended has left behind questions about reading in the digital age, in a manner yet more open-ended than even the unusually tumultuous last few weeks could have prepared us for. Coming soon upon Apple's setback in trying to make a dent in Amazon's unfettered liberty in setting prices for Kindle e-book editions, and the official merger of Penguin and Random House — both developments whose full implications are not yet clear — you could ask, what's the big deal about a ridiculously bestselling writer being found out to have published a detective novel under a pseudonym? That too, a lightly, if favourably, reviewed book that, without the magnetism of her real name, sold less than 1,500 (perhaps even as little as 499) copies in three months.
Of course, we'd be expected to confront our shallowness, our flakiness, our brand-consciousness, as it were, our love of a spectacle. I confess. I had lined up outside a bookstore in Delhi to get copies of her last Harry Potter book, hot off the delivery van. I had shown no such enthusiasm for her first novel for adults, Casual Vacancy. But once Robert Galbraith was revealed to be the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, I had to read The Cuckoo's Calling. Like many hundreds of thousands of others. And it is a good book, though it does not push the envelope as so many other novels in the crime genre do. But it's a page-turner, full of finely drawn profiles, with the keen sense of place so crucial in detective fiction. Given that it explores the corrosiveness of the culture of celebrity, knowing the writer's identity, with Rowling's consistently unconcealed exasperation at the intrusiveness of the media, helps.