This morning, I stood on the train behind a woman reading from a Kindle that was affixed to its leather case by a big green rubber band, looped around twice. Of course, seeing a Kindle or any of its cousins on the train isn’t anything to call Grandma about, but there’s a metaphor of some sort tangled up with all the knotted strands of hair in that rubber band. It also happens that I was involved in a discussion of sorts regarding the e-readers last night, and so it all seemed very apropos.
Most of the hubbub around e-readers is pretty dire stuff. Were you to believe it all, these devices would mean the end of books, the end of the printed page, death to newspapers and magazines and the written word and English and literacy and now we’re all just going to watch wrestling all the time instead. I think, and this is speculative on my part, that this fear that the literary sky is falling has been informed by the woes of the music recording industry. Pundits (I suppose there must be such a thing for the publishing world) see a direct correlation between what befell that industry and the current state of their own. To borrow the SAT trope, MP3s would be to CDs, as e-books would be to book-books.
It’s a fairly understandable fear on the part of book publishers, too. The industry is contracting pretty severely, in terms of sales, stores, publishers, everything. So, then, the appearance of this new technology no doubt seems like the latest, and most terrifying, of the monsters to appear under the bed. However, at its very core, there is a huge glaring fallacy in the analogy to the music business. E-books are not like MP3s. And the reason is simple enough, e-books are not like MP3s because book-books are not like CDs. They’re not even like vinyl records (although we edge closer and closer…). Music is not like literature. They are arts, yes, but neither is any more like the other than they would be like painting or ballet. (I wonder, was the invention of the photograph taken to be demise of the fine visual arts?)
The sole similarity between e-books and MP3s, and the thing that has everyone so distraught, is that they are electronic. That’s all. In the end, this concern that the printed word is dead is just old people not understanding technology, again. Bless their hearts, they’re trying. They ignored technology and it cost them newspapers. They ignored technology and it cost them CDs and almost (pity) killed the Big Record Companies. And so they go forth under the assumption that technology kills everything it touches and they’ll be damned if they will let it happen to books!
The sentiment is noble, perhaps, but grossly misinformed. People interact with books in a much, much different way than they do with music. Music, as listened to generally speaking, and especially on commutes – where both MP3 players and e-readers seem to do most of their work – is consumed differently. The reason MP3 players have become so popular is because of their portability and accessibility. It suddenly became possible to carry around literally hundreds of albums in your pocket. Gone were the days of picking five CDs to cram in your backpack each morning because you just couldn’t make up your mind. The MP3 player makes it possible to have your entire library with you at all times, and to move freely through it, without changing tapes or discs or the like.
One of the touted features of e-readers, too, is their huge capacity. The newest version of the Kindle can hold up to 3,500 books, according to Amazon’s website, and it’s the most useless thing I have ever heard of. Never would you need to have with you your entire library of books. People don’t click shuffle because they just can’t decide if they want to read Samuel Beckett or Saul Bellow this morning. People don’t make Playlists of dozens of novels about French Hip Hop (or, at least, they can’t make their way through the list in a single sitting). A book is not a song, and we do not interact with books in the rapid-fire way we do songs. We mull them, we reread lines, we flip back and forth, we show the person next to us the footnotes in Infinite Jest. Unless you’re using your Kindle to hold an entire law library, all those other books are idle, much as they would be at home on your bookshelf. And all of the 3,500 books are housed in a device the size… of a book. The space saved in your purse by using a Kindle over a printed book is enough room for another Kindle.
I much prefer printed books, I like holding them and reading them and flipping pages. Sometimes I make notes in them. I like to pass them along to other people, and I like to have them passed along to me. All of these things can’t be done with an e-book. And I know I’m not the only one out here. There’s plenty of value to be had from e-readers: instant downloading of newspapers and magazines, for instance, or – hell – they’re even a perfect venue for all those poor bastard short stories no one knows what to do with. It would be much more beneficial to the Written Word and the Printed Page to focus on those potentialities. To exert energy towards using technology to boost readership, draw people back to literature, rather than drive them away by declaring it all already dead at the hands of whatever new horror the already-inept publishing world sees in it’s dusty bifocals.