There's been a slew of stories over the last few months about electronic books, primarily of the Kindle variety, but some of them touch on general issues pertaining to the availability, use, and desirability of e-books. I've been trying to compose a post in response to them, but I keep getting overwhelmed. What to say in response to a prep school that replaces its library with a cappuccino machine and 18 e-readers? *head-desk* (The School Library Journal has a more articulate response.) What about the summer's too-perfect-to-be-true news that Amazon deleted copies of Orwell's works from the Kindles without informing owners? Make that another big #amazonfail moment after their first, horrendous mistake last spring when changes in their ranking system made thousands of gay and lesbian titles disappear from searches. Ooops. In further e-stories, there's the non-release as e-books of two of the Fall's big titles: Teddy Kennedy's posthumous True Compass and Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. What will those Cushing Academy students do when researching papers about the Obama election? I guess rely on Wikipedia. (For insight into why the memoirs aren't Kindled, see Daniel Gross's Moneybox column for Slate, in which he explains why the economics of publishing doesn't make sense for them as e-reads.) Oh, and speaking of students and e-readers, what do Princeton students have to say about using Kindles as part of a pilot program to replace textbooks with Kindles? According to one student quoted in the Daily Princetonian, "this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool." Finally, last week there was the New York Times piece worrying that books might be the next to be "Napsterized." (Remember Napster? Some of you young 'uns might not recall the world before digital music files, but let me tell you, it put the fear of Someone into the music industry when people started sharing their music online.) Joshua Kim's response on Inside Higher Ed brings those Napster concerns into a conversation with universities and libraries.
About a year ago, I posted about my perplexed response to a newspaper column that touted the joy of Kindle as being "almost like a book"--why read something that's almost as good as a book when you could read a book? I still stand by that point, but not because I'm a luddite. In that particular piece, I was reacting against a perception that e-reading had to be good because it was new. But I also don't think it has to be bad because it's new. My husband got a Kindle last spring and it's been great. For him, the joy of the machine is that it holds so much. Given his preference for texts that come in big, heavy books--military history, science fiction, jurisprudence--the fact that he can take his Kindle on trips means that he needn't break his back or run out of reading material. I still don't use it, and not only because he's the alpha gadgeteer in our household. My way of reading for work and research is to cover the page in notes, so paper copies work best for me. And most of my pleasure reading I do in a way that isolates me as much as possible from the world: glasses off, dark room, book light. We all have our own ways of reading and different technologies that meet those needs.
But much of what I'm seeing written in the popular press about e-book readers isn't, I don't think, taking into account the full picture. Some of the stories I mentioned above hint at the problem of Amazon's essential monopoly over the current e-field. I know Sony has an e-reader, but given Amazon's vertical integration, they hold an incredible portion of the e-market in their tight e-fist. (E-sorry. It's hard to stop the e-jokes.) If there was some competition in that market, the problems of pricing and availability and Big Brother would be different.
More to this blog's point, what does the current state of e-readers and discussion have to do with book history and book historians? So much of what we're considering today with Kindles focuses on books that were written to be distributed in print and then are transferred into an e-format. (Daniel Gross's book Dumb Money actually did this transference the other direction: he wrote it as an e-book for Free Press and it sold well enough that it's now available in print--see the Washington Post profile of him for more on that.) But what happens when we get to the day that works are created for and intended to be experienced as e-books? How will that change the experience of using books? And how will we ensure the survival of those books? As anyone who has been working with computers over the last few decades knows, technology becomes obsolete and earlier formats don't always carry over into new ones.
Similarly, how might the availability of new digital formats affect the process of creating works? According to Scott Karambis, for some creative artists, the availability of the digital world has changed how and what they write: author Justin Cronin relied on the ease of researching online to push his knowledge into new arenas when composing his newest novel, insisting that it made him become a different sort of writer. Karambis's blog post focuses more on the effect of technology on the process of creation and less on the impact of digital creations themselves (the blog is geared towards other folks in marketing, rather than, say, writers or book historians). Rachel Toor, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is more focused on the economic impact of e-books. Even though she loves reading e-books on her Kindle, she has decidedly more mixed feelings about being an e-writer. Might e-publishing save university publishers by bringing down costs and therefore recovering the economic viability of those scholarly monographs with small audiences? And the speed of electronic publishing is wonderful for timely subjects and for the responsiveness it generates for readers. But will people stumble across e-books the way they do physical books on bookshelves? Will writers be able to live off the advances from their e-books the way that some are able to today?
Toor and Cronin don't ask this in their reflections on writing and new technology, but I will: will we still have e-books to read if they aren't backed up on paper? Will we still be able to lend books to each other if they're tied to our e-readers? Will we still be able to talk back to our books, modify them, resist them?
I often, when teaching early modern book history, say to my students, "It's all about money!" And it often is. But it's also about creativity and interactivity and longevity. And we're still taking baby steps towards what it all might mean.