Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Technology and Reading

I've been reading a lot about the e-reader Kindle lately. You've  heard of it. It's available from Amazon.com and lets you read text on a screen. After many years of trying unsuccessful to sell the book-reading public on such a device, Kindle has finally seemed to have won the battle. The corporate salesmen have succeeded in mediating even our reading, of making us believe we need to make even reading a technological event. 

You all should watch a documentary I just saw called "I Need that Record." It's a sad, yet inspiring, elegiac account of the disappearance of independent record stores in the US, with commentary from some very perceptive people in the music industry. What people miss about record stores is not the ability to get a record *immediately* but the ability to browse through a collection of records carefully chosen by someone who cares about music. 

Record stores are eccentric spaces where you might find the most marvelous things fortuitously, things you maybe weren't even looking for in the first place or had never even heard of.  Independent bookstores create those same kinds of spaces, especially bookstores that carry offbeat, unusual, out-of-print stuff that you won't find on Amazon, via Kindle or not.

Don't get me wrong. I do see the point of e-readers if all you do is read trendy bestsellers & trashy novels. But if you want to have a real personal library with some depth and permanence, a library that is a reflection of your individuality and your curiosity, I suggest you find space in your home for some bookshelves. Books last for generations, e-readers are nothing more than plastic junk which will be replaced when the corporate gods decide what the Next Big Thing is that they want you to spend your money on. There's already a Kindle 2.0; I'm sure you'll be needing to keep replacing this mechanism periodically in order to keep up with the Joneses. Right now a Kindle is $139 a pop, plus whatever groovy case & "accessories" you want to add. How many used (i.e., recycled) books could you buy with this money? Quite a few, and probably for less than their Kindle counterparts.

These e-readers, along with their downloaded text (which you don't own, by the way, in the same way you own a book), will wind up in the landfills of the world. I have a vision of people hundreds of years from now trying to figure out this civilization and having nothing to go on but indecipherable pieces of plastic. But the corporate coffers must be filled, and they apparently have found a whole lot of true believers.

It's the same situation as WalMart putting the mom & pop shops out of business. And it's nothing to be proud of or happy about. It's a sad state of affairs that the little shops with real personality & love and passion for books are going away, like lights going out one by one across the American landscape.


  1. That you don't own the text on your e-reader is an important point- Amazon has already gone and taken back a couple of books. Can't imagine any publisher coming into my house to do that with a real book.

  2. Thank you for this post. I completely agree. When I enter a new home of a friend, I always scan their bookshelves. It gives me insight into what kind of things interest them and I'm able to start a conversation about it! For the busy on the go person, I think E readers are great. For me, I don't mind hauling a bag of books on vacation. But I don't fly, so perhaps if I did, I'd feel differently. My dream is to have a room surrounded by beautiful shelves of books I've read. Just seeing books lined up on a shelf makes me smile.