15 January 2010

Am I contributing to the downfall of literature as we know it?

So, way back when I got an iPod Nano for my birthday and learned the joys of watching downloaded TV on a 2 1/2-inch screen, I asked myself: did this mean I also wanted a Kindle? Or was I more committed to the book as an object than that?

My husband answered that question for me with my Christmas gift. And the answer is: both. The Kindle is amazing and I'm so lucky to own one--and I'm not giving up my extensive library of books for anything. I'll even keep adding to it: there are some books that I'm going to want to physically own, even if I can read them another way.

Now, the next question: Does that make me a pawn in Amazon's evil empire?

Farhad Manjoo is worried it might. Pointing out that electronic delivery of books involves a host of licensing and other copyright/rights management issues, Manjoo writes:
But the Kindle's restrictions are more worrying than those associated with the iPhone, the iPod, and other gizmos. For one thing, if you objected to the iTunes Store's policies, there was always another way to legally buy music for your iPod—you could buy CDs (from Amazon, perhaps) and rip the tracks to MP3. That's not an option for books; there's no easy way to turn dead trees into electrons.

What Manjoo misses here--to my shock, frankly--is that there is a way to get content out of dead trees: you just read the book on paper. His concerns are absolutely valid for media that require some sort of electronic conversion. I don't have a DVD player, so if I want to (legally) watch a movie when I want to watch it, I'm entirely limited by what's available on iTunes or my cable provider's on-demand network; I can't just buy the disc (or check it out of the library) and stare at it. I can do exactly that with a book. And I'm not sooooo in love with my Kindle that, if a book I want to read isn't available in that format, I'll give up on reading it.

There are two things that thrill me about the Kindle: 1) I can bring along a suitcase full of books when I travel, without having to lug an actual suitcase full of books; and 2) I can read new, hardcover books when they come out, even if I don't actually want to have to find space for when I'm done reading them.

Plus, it's already saved my Cool Aunt cred once. When my whole family went to central Kansas this winter for my grandma's birthday party, we piled my niece and nephew into the two cars for the 3-hour drive from Kansas City without much attention to what gear was where. As a result, my eight-year-old niece ended up in the car that did _not_ have her books--or anything else to pass the time--in it. And she was sharing the back seat with her Aunt Kathryne, who had a sore throat and was in no shape to read aloud, or even chat much.

As Bertie Wooster would say, it was but the work of a moment with me to download Frindle onto my new device and pass it over. Not only did Julia take to the book without a word of complaint, but oh my giddy aunt, the joy when she realized she was reading a real live chapter book--not an easy reader--all by herself will probably be my biggest thrill for a while.

Two things, however, really bother me about the Kindle: 1) It might break, and probably will wear out someday; and 2) I have to watch the battery. Both of those things are the opposite of what's good about books.

The experience of reading on a Kindle differs from reading a book in a couple of significant ways. For one--as my niece discovered--you can't glean the kind of information about what you're reading from the Kindle screen as you can from a physical book. (In my niece's case, this was a good thing: if I'd handed her a paperback of Frindle, she might have gotten freaked out by its chapter-book-ness and not tried to read it alone.)

For another, you can't flip to the end and read the last page to make sure everything turns out all right. This has been a long habit of mine: I like being able to concentrate on the story without actually worrying about the characters.

But I couldn't do that with The Little Stranger. I just had to stay up late and finish it. And the ending was far more creepy and satisfying that way than it would have been if I had flipped to the last page. I am so impressed with the effect that I'm using all my willpower not to flip to the end of The Help, which I'm reading in paper copy (thanks, Mom!).

I'll be interested to see what happens with e-books and e-publishing over the next few years. After all, I've been through six different formats for listening to music in my lifetime (seven if you count "being in the same room with someone playing an instrument"), but books have always been books. I hope that the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader and whatever else they come up with will live happily alongside the wall of bookcases in my living room.


  1. I want a reader so I can read all of those out-of-print books on Gutenberg and elsewhere online (I'm a sucker for Victorians) and go on a trip without an extra suitcase for my books.

    I'm waiting for theings to even out a little, though. The Sony reader, Nook and Kindle all have features I like, but I'm hoping to get them all in one machine... we'll see.

  2. Laura, I'm so glad Gino just bought the book for me and didn't ask me which I wanted--I would have dithered back and forth between the options and never chosen! Waiting until the different machines all have similar features sounds like a great idea.

  3. Kathryne,
    As usual, a lovely, thoughtful and articulate commentary. I enjoyed it, as I always have your writing.
    You may miss, I think, what is indeed a very important threat that electronic readers pose to the written word. I have read that the books have to be downloaded from the web and that there is no way to shut that feature off. So that you are always connected to the "publisher" of your books. So, when for any reason, the publisher wants to change the work you have, you have no way to stop that. I have read that this has already happened because of copyright issues - I don't know the details. If I'm wrong, please correct me.
    We know from the many ways that literary works have been trampled, beginning with the Readers' Digest Condensed Books, and continuing through the rewrites that Disney has made of classic stories, many of which may never be read by anyone in their original - often out-of-print -format. The books on my shelf are not going to arbitrarily (or purposefully) change. They will stay as they are, until they fly away in dust. Since I think you are probably right in saying that the electronic reader is going to dominate the world of books more and more; I hope that it will not bring the kind of changes that I fear it may.
    Love, Daddy.

  4. Dad, the case with the books being removed from Kindle was actually Amazon's attempt to defeat piracy: someone had scanned in copies of, I believe, "1984", and sold them illegally (without royalties going to Orwell's estate, which still held the copyright).

    As you note, though, literary works are being changed and original versions made harder to find even _without_ the benefit of electronics.

    The flip side of your concern is that e-books could make it easier for people to self-publish, and for out-of-print books to remain available. It's a lot easier to keep a file on an accessible server than to keep printing copies of a book that only a few hundred people a year want to read.

    In any case, I really don't think that e-books are going to dominate the market anytime soon. Books as we know them still have several substantial benefits that e-books don't: they're sharable; they're cheap; they don't require batteries.

  5. Kathryne, as a fellow Kindle owner, I must say welcome to Kindleland!!!

    Two quick points:
    -- The Kindle battery can last a week (or more) as long as the wireless is turned off! So just turn the wireless on for downloads/syncing, and turn it off right away to save the battery.

    -- Actually, you can peek at the end. Just hit "go to location" from the menu and type in a number close to final location number. VoilĂ ! It's just like cheating - not that you SHOULD peek, of course!

    I love my Kindle too, especially for traveling. I choose not to worry about the possible downfall of the publishing industry. I mean, we're BUYING books, right? Anyway, I have faith that it will all work out!!!

  6. Coe, thanks for the tip on turning off the wireless! I hadn't thought of that, but you're right, the little battery is draining much more slowly now.

    Just today I bought the Printz winner and one of the Printz honor books for my Kindle. Otherwise I would have had to wait for them to be mailed from the States. This rules!