Book readers have realised that you can’t replace the feel of turning a real page | Tim Adams

Merlin Sheldrake

In 2009, when Amazon’s Kindle ebook was launched in the UK, it seemed impossible to imagine that a dozen years later booksellers would be reporting a record year of sales of paperbacks and hardbacks. Despite the fact that bookshops were closed for three months early in 2021, figures show that the rejuvenation of the printed word has gathered pace.

That trend undermines the tech companies’ seductive promises that apps and platforms will always and inevitably eclipse physical objects. The unexpected triumph of printed books – partly a result of their enhanced design values – proves that not all upgrades represent progress.

As the great after-hours polymath Tom Waits once observed to me: “If I want to walk out in the desert and heat up a tin of beans on a fire, I still can. In movies such as Gattaca, the space-age stuff is always all there is. But in the world there is never just one way of living. It’s more like a big junkyard. Put it this way: I’m not afraid I’m going to end up on a space station in aluminium-foil underwear.”

Beguiled by slime

Merlin Sheldrake
Merlin Sheldrake: ‘Nature is an event that never stops.’ Photograph: Samir Hussein/Getty Images for BoF VOICES

Among the more surprising books that currently feature on bestseller lists are those devoted to the biography of the ground beneath our feet. Merlin Sheldrake’s mesmerising Entangled Life, his quest into the subterranean kingdom of fungi, began that trend. I’ve subsequently been hooked on Susanne Wedlich’s uncovering of 3bn years of Slime and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s cultural history, Gathering Mosses. If these books share a thread it is that life is fundamentally cooperation; its principle “we”, not “I”. As the magically named Sheldrake puts it: “A mycelial network is a helpful reminder that all life-forms are processes not things. The ‘you’ of five years ago was made from different stuff than the ‘you’ of today. Nature is an event that never stops.”

Legal aid

Jolyon Maugham
Jolyon Maugham’s latest victory in the high court, proved the illegality of the government’s ‘VIP lane’. Photograph: Jean-Francois Pelletier/Alamy

British people find it hard to take lawyers to their hearts. An exception might have to be made, however, for Jolyon Maugham and his Good Law Project.

On a busy news day last Wednesday, with the competing shame of the prime minister and Prince Andrew dominating the headlines, Maugham’s latest victory in the high court, proving the illegality of the government’s “VIP lane” for PPE procurement, was relegated downpage. As the full detail of the billions squandered in the chaotic early response to the pandemic emerges, however, it may well prove the story that most defines the unravelling core belief of Johnsonism – that laws are for other people.

Old haunts

Jan Morris at home in Wales
Jan Morris at home in Wales: ‘It HAS been fun!’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

My journalistic highlight of the past couple of years was visiting 93-year-old Jan Morris at her home in north Wales. Morris, the most mercurial of spirits, was full of a powerful presentiment both of her mortality and what might come next. She gaily imagined an afterlife that involved both a great love affair with Lord Jacky Fisher, former admiral of the fleet, and the haunting of her two spiritual homes: the River Dwyfor beside her house and the cliffs of Trieste, where she would again “watch the nightingales swarm”.

Her life exemplified a belief that there’s no need to settle as a single being. That shape-shifting spirit is alive and well in the new posthumous collection of Morris’s essays, Allegorizings.

In one, she dreams of an alternative Britain in which Princess Diana, our “patron sinner”, still bewitches the world in a “summer dress of blazing crimson and an amazing hat”, eternally uttering the fond farewell Morris always aspired to: “It HAS been fun!”

Tim Adams in an Observer columnist