I recently bought a Kindle. More than once, as I’ve been excitedly showing off my new toy to friends, they’ve said “well, I just really love books, so I’m not interested in this.” Or even a more extreme version–that they’ll only be dragged into using this new technology kicking and screaming.
If I point out that one of the reasons I love my Kindle is because I travel a lot for work, they will tell me that, “Oh, it makes sense for you.”
Electronic books have been a staple of science fiction since the early days of the field, and some even go farther and suggest that when computers will be able to read to us, the act of reading itself will become obsolete. The Kindle (and other ebook readers) is the first major commercially popular electronic books.
The Kindle even has a “read to me” feature, but I never use it. (I can only listen to books when I’m doing something else, like driving. And the Kindle’s voice is a generic computer voice with no inflection, so it’s hard to follow.) And since I’ve owned my Kindle, I’ve actually read more books than in the period right before buying it. I think that in some ways, the responses I’ve been getting suggest that there is something better or purer about paper books as opposed to electronic books.
Don’t get me wrong. I love paper books. I love hardbacks that will last for ages, and paperbacks that fall open to my favorite scenes. We are constantly running out of shelf space and having to prune our books so that we’re not overcome by towering piles of books at every turn. Which, I think, may be part of the reason I’m embracing the ebook technology.
I will never get rid of my truly loved books. I have boxes of books I can’t bear to get rid of, even if I don’t read them regularly. I also re-read many of my books on a regular basis. But that’s not the whole story. I also read books that I may not want to re-read. For those who love books, getting rid of books is a challenge. We can’t just throw them out, so we spend a lot of time trying to find takers to read them–even for free. (BookMooch is one great resource, but many of our friends know that we constantly urge them to take books from us if they even think they might read them). My Kindle allows me to simply archive books I don’t want to reread. No shelf space worries, and no disposal problems.
I studied history in college, and I remember reading some of the philosophers from ancient Greece, and they spoke about how they were afraid that the spread of writing to the common people would harm people’s memories. If they could just read a saga, rather than reciting it from memory, they wouldn’t have to work as hard. This was portrayed as a moral failing, rather than a feature of the new technology.
Similarly, the spread of the printing press led some thinkers to discuss how eventually, we’d run out of books to print. After all, at the time of Gutenberg, there were libraries in major cities that held only 2000 or so books. Compare that to the smallest local library now.
I believe that electronic books are a similar revolution in terms of the amount of material available. Electronic books have far less overhead than paper ones. The main cost is the time of the author (and, ideally, the time of the editor, but that seems to have been skipped in far too many of the ebooks I’ve seen). No paper, ink, printing machinery, publicity, etc. (Well, there can be some publicity, but it’s generally online, and much less sophisticated and costly.)
Amazon offers a sample of every single book that’s available on Kindle–so that you can decide if you want to buy it. This is a revolutionary concept, when you think about it. They’re giving away some of the proprietary content in the hopes that you’re willing to buy more. Free samples have existed for a long time in many fields, but generally for consumables. Books are not used up by reading. Therefore, there are market pressures to make the books interesting from the start, so that people will be enticed to read more and to buy the book.
In addition, the vast amount of free stuff out there is another sign that the nature of publishing is changing. The time of the author isn’t valuable to the reader unless it’s something that the reader is willing to pay for. Having to compete against the free material forces professional writers and publishers to find ways to add value–most often by finding writers who are better than what is available for free.
That’s part of the reason I love my Kindle–because it’s a part of a movement that, rather than spelling the end of the book, is a revolution prioritizing skill and content over publicity and volume. I will happily pay for electronic books that are well written and enjoyable–particularly because they allow me to read more without sacrificing my valuable shelf space to stuff I don’t want to read more than once. Being able to travel with multiple books is just a side benefit–although a great one.
To me, my Kindle is a sign that books aren’t dying–they’re actually blossoming, since there are more ways to publish and more competition among writers.