The Willful Death of a Luddite

As an avid reader, I’d kept a wary watch on the world of e-readers since the first practical edition of the Kindle came out. (I’m still at a loss for the use of the scroll bar on the side of the original device.) Like many readers, I was a little tentative about giving up my paper pages not so much because I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands, but primarily because my home library is tied directly to my ego, which risked a serious decrease in placation if people could no longer deduce from it how smart and worldly I really am.

But curiosity continued to nag at me. Could e-readers really be better than books? While my other friends were on the verge of taking blood oaths that they would never abandon their precious print, I was secretly checking back at Amazon two or three times a day to see if the Kindle prices showed any signs of dropping. When Barnes and Noble followed with the Nook, it was just one nudge further to the dark side..

“E-readers have competition now,” I thought. “They must be cool.” And as we all know, being cool is far more important than being intelligent or worldly.

Believe it or not, though, the scale-tipper had nothing to do with my ego. Instead, it had everything to do with being cheap. Both the Nook and the Kindle — and probably every other e-reader out there — offer free editions of most every worthwhile out-of-copyright text available. Forget the fact that for the price of a Kindle I could have also purchased approximately 37.8 of these texts from Barnes and Noble. I wanted a full thirty-eight, and I wanted to be able to buy them from the comfort of my bathroom. From Great Expectations to The Divine Comedy, an e-reader would allow me, at the push of a button, to enlighten myself beyond my junior-year English teacher’s most inebriated dreams. Two days after my birthday, the price of the Kindle finally dropped. The time had come to make my move into the future of literary technology.

Checking over my shoulder in case any of my bookworm friends were eavesdropping with a battle-axe, I quickly clicked through the order page, guilty as an eight-year-old boy sifting through the swimsuit section of his sister’s J. Crew catalogue. My order complete, I closed my browser window and picked up a chewed copy of Dracula, opening to a random page just in time for one of those whom I betrayed to come around the corner.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Reading. Obviously.

Because Amazon wanted me to know that I’d made the right choice, they sent the Kindle overnight so I received it the very next day — this at no extra charge. I liken this to when Anakin’s first task as Darth Vader was to annihilate the Jedi: immediate gratification vindicates even the worst decisions. Opening my Kindle was like switching to a red light saber. It was the most glorious feeling I’ve known since realizing that Greedo did, in fact, shoot first.

My new treasure in hand, I was faced with the task of purchasing my first book. While this might have been a challenge for most people, I had no trouble with it. That’s because I’m a writer, and therefore broke. Thus my first purchase was not a purchase at all, but a download of one of those free books that had me drooling all over my roommate’s keyboard. This granted me the ability to try out my new e-reader with no extra financial commitment while simultaneously perpetuating the vicious cycle that ensures that all writers remain broke forever. Because I’m the kind of guy who likes to do my part.

Since I was already reading it in a massive anthology I never planned to take anywhere except maybe to my living room, I downloaded “Phantastes” by George MacDonald. The very fact that I was able to hold the text in one hand — turn the page, even — as opposed to fumbling around with the  five-pound compilation was more than enough to satisfy my e-reader skepticism. Except for the threat still posed to my life by those sworn to Liberty, Equality, Printing Presses or Death, I felt what few inhibitions I’d had surrounding e-reading evanesce like so many of the fallen trees that are forced to untimely deaths for our reading pleasure. (Take that, activists!)

But this isn’t about the perks of the e-reading device itself. Anybody can visit a high-schooler’s blog to read about those. No, this is about the rapture of having an entire catalogue of literary classics at your fingertips, any time you want. On a train to Boston and sick of reading chick lit? Download Sense and Sensibility. Have better taste in books? Try something by Robert Louis Stevenson. Interested in the effect of hallucinogenic substances on little children? Alice in Wonderland is available in multiple editions. Didn’t pay attention in high school? A Tale of Two Cities can bring you back to those youthful days of rebellion faster than a dose of cigarettes and Sunny D.

And it doesn’t stop with nostalgia and train rides, either. I’m already thinking about buying Kindles for all of my unborn children. Not only do kids like buttons more than book pages, but the fact is that kids are — let’s be honest — not very smart. How hard can it be to trick them into reading a book just because it’s on a battery-operated screen? After all, kids will engage in most anything as long as it’s on an electronic screen. (I’m fondly reminded of Game Boy’s 2.6 inch square of optical carnage.) Not only that, but with their selections limited to free books, I won’t have to worry about them reading books I don’t approve of, with the exception of a few James Joyce novels, which I’m hopeful my kids will be smart enough to recognize for what they are in the first place. E-reading will also conveniently result in the notable absence of beaten, torn, and shredded tomes scattered across the 150-square-foot home I expect I’ll have when I’m fifty. And, since it’s likely that my kids will be smarter than everyone else’s kids, they’ll know enough to find my Kindle and break it instead of their own, preserving their own for the future.

Indeed, it is in the future where the e-reader with the free books really pays off. When my kids reach high school, they won’t have to suffer the indignity of those battered, bruised and peed-on copies of books they hand out in most public English departments. They won’t have to be mislead on exams by inaccurate notes scribbled in the margins, nor will they suffer discipline for scribbling their own inaccurate notes in the margins, nor will they have to pay twenty dollars for a five dollar book when they lose it before the lesson ends and the teacher sees an opening to make some extra beer money. All of that disappears with the free books available on e-readers. And by the time my kids are in school, it will be well after 2019 and any book worth my children’s attention that isn’t currently out of copyright will be by then. I think the point makes itself: E-readers are not just a sleek, modern choice to make your kids look cooler than someone else’s kids. They are an investment.

Granted, there are drawbacks to e-readers, but there are also drawbacks to bars, and that doesn’t stop us from patronizing them as soon as we can get away with it. And just the way a bar is only one means to consuming an adult beverage, so also are e-readers only one way to enjoy the magic of literature. Sure, they can be a little expensive at first, but just like a bar, the more drinks you have, the less money you’ll think you’ve spent. And in the long run, that’s what good literature is really all about: Getting you to believe something that simply isn’t true.

The truth is that I’ll never give up print books entirely, and I don’t think anyone else will, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll spend more money when you tally up all of the times I’ll buy a Kindle edition and a print edition of a book. (Well played, Amazon marketing team.) But my continued patronage of print novels will not be for the greater good promoted by literary snobs, nor will it be because I like the acrid smell of urine wafting across my face as I flip through the pages of a twenty-year-old library book. In fact, it won’t even have to do with the cost of books. No, in the end I will continue to buy hard copy books because they represent a slice of history, the bitter toil of one man or woman and their editor, seamlessly bound by the spine of impossibility and perched proudly on the shelf of time, where it will forever whisper to me, “You can do it, too, Josh.” And because I’ll need something to throw at my kids when they break my Kindle.

Facts, Errors, and the Kindle

From More Intelligent Life: Facts, Errors, and the Kindle.

Nietzsche famously said that there are no such things as facts, only interpretations. Be that as it may, every writer knows that there are certainly such things as factual mistakes. Errors are common in all forms of media, but it is mistakes in the printed word that are perhaps the most pernicious. Once a “fact” has been pressed onto paper, it becomes a trusted source, and misinformation will multiply. The combination of human fallibility with Gutenberg’s invention of efficient printing in 1439 has, for all the revolutionary advantages of the latter, proved (in some respects) to be a toxic mixture.

Periodicals publish corrections in subsequent issues and some successful books are (expensively) reissued in new, improved editions. But in a better world, the book, magazine or newspaper in your hands would itself be updated when mistakes are discovered by its publisher. Thanks to the advent of electronic reading gadgets, like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, such magic is getting closer. Old-fashioned, uncorrectable books may never disappear. Only futurologists-that is, people who specialise in being wrong about the future instead of the present-would dare to predict their utter demise. Yet it is now possible that the tyranny of print will meet some powerful resistance, and that readers will benefit.

Cultural Snobbery

From Vanity Fair: James Wolcott on Cultural Snobbery.

In New York City (can’t speak for the other metro systems across this great land), every subway car is a rolling library, every ride an opportunity to spy on the reading tastes of fellow passengers and make snap judgments that probably wouldn’t hold up in court. Single women in their 30s and 40s gripping a teenage-vampire tale or a Harry Potter-they seem to be hanging out a surrender flag. Those parading the latest Oprah selection might as well honk like geese. Then there are those who defy stereotype. A tall, straw-thin model glides into seated position and extracts a copy of concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning from her bag, instantly making an onlooker (me) feel rebuked for assuming she was vacuous and self-centered based on her baby-ostrich stare. In the same car is another, older woman-do men not read anymore? (Seinfeld’s Jerry, defensively: “I read.” Elaine: “Books, Jerry”)-holding up a Kindle at an angle to catch the light. Unless you were an elf camped on her shoulder, what she was reading was hoarded from view, an anonymous block of pixels on a screen, making it impossible to identify its content and to surmise the state of her inner being, erotic proclivities, and intellectual caliber. She might be reading Alice Munro, patron saint of short-story writers, or some James Patterson sack of chicken feed-how dare she disguise her download from our prying eyes! And reading an e-book on an iPhone, that’s truly unsporting. It goes the other way as well. How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?

Upgrade Me:
Are We Getting Better, Or Just Newer?

A confession: a couple of Wednesdays ago, I brought my laptop to work with me for one purpose – to download the latest iPhone update. Apple issued an upgrade to its iPhone software that day, which added such long-awaited features as Copy, Cut and Paste, Spotlight search, multimedia messaging, and a plethora of other add-ons to the already excellent operating system.

(Yes, this is going to be a nerdy article.)

The iPhone 3.0 software got me thinking about the way we twenty-first century dwellers have become obsessed with the concept of upgrading. Think about it: the upgrade, though always associated with the computer, was a phenomenon that was once only available every few years or so. I remember very clearly the excitement my dad felt at the introduction of Windows 95 or the dawn of the Pentium chip. But both of these upgrades required a purchase: a new piece of software, or new hardware.

But today, the upgrade isn’t necessarily something we do as much as something that happens to us. Open up your web browser (assuming, and hoping, it’s Firefox), and every so often you will get a message that a new version is ready for download. Sometimes this new version carries with it features that will change the way you work, like tabbed browsing, and other times it simply has security patches that you didn’t know you needed.

Or, for instance, if somehow you didn’t know the iPhone was going to be upgraded on June 17, you may have plugged in on Wednesday to drop some new music on your handset and found a new version of the software, with a plethora of new features waiting for you, and for the low price of just fifteen minutes of waiting.

But constant updating is seen in a much more common place, as well. Think about any of the websites you visit on a regular basis. You likely check sites weekly or daily because the content will be fresh. The site will be updated. As a web developer, I am drawn to the ease of updating this medium. I know that if I make a mistake, or if the information I’ve transmitted becomes out of date, I can simply make a change, upload it, and refresh, and I will have fixed the problem.

I think upgrading is great. I upgrade as often as possible: phone software, websites, computer hardware, anything. But I’m very much aware that something important is lost in all of this frenzied upgrading – namely, permanence.

For instance: consider that website you visit frequently. Imagine that the design has changed, but you really liked the way it looked before. Too bad – it’s gone now. This certainly has been evident in the many new iterations of Facebook that have been released in the last few years. Every time that social networking site updates their look or the way certain features work, a group (the existence of which was, of course, an added feature to their previous platform) is created decrying the new look and feel.

We, as humans, long for change, for the chance to better ourselves and our surroundings and yet, almost as vehemently, we mourn the loss of what we had. Take for example, the graphic designer who decided to print out 437 “featured” Wikipedia articles, producing a book 5,000 pages long and 19 inches thick, to “make a comment on how everyone goes to the internet these days for information, yet it is very unreliable compared to what it has replaced.” No one, not even this “artist,” is even sure what is being replaced, but we’re sure we’ll miss it – that is, if we take the time to think about it long enough.

But do we pause to miss those lost things, or do we press on, ever eager to keep up with the next best thing? It seems that since the beginning of the modern era the pattern has been such that younger generations rush forward, making leaps and bounds that improve the human condition in the face of great concern from the older generations that hold to tradition as supreme. And then, eventually, that once-younger generation, in the face of the improvements of their progeny, hold fast to their once new and now old ways, decrying the infringement on tradition by the younger generation.

But this may not be the case any longer. I mentioned that my father eagerly anticipated the release of the newest version of Windows back in 1995. In truth, he was eager to see Windows 3.0 before that and XP years later. And I was right there with him. My dad got an iPhone before I did, and when he could no longer wait for the next iteration of the phone’s software, he jailbroke it so he could upgrade as often as he cared to. I’ve always been a step behind my father on the technological curve, so clearly I cannot remember him ever decrying the way things used to be. Who cares about tradition when there are new features to be had?

I’m not sure how we are supposed to feel about this. Should we celebrate our ability to update ourselves, now that even our elders enjoy the benefits of perpetual upgrade? Or have we lost something? Was there something about tradition, about permanence, that we will miss when it is gone, swept aside to make room for whatever’s next? Or, is this silly to worry about? Have we built into our upgrades legacy versions, ways to document and even eternalize the past?

I’m torn. As I sit writing this, I’m surrounded by shelves overflowing with books and more books in piles on every visible surface. I love books. But at the same time, I’m listening to music that is playing through my computer. The shelves of compact discs, which replaced my parents’ shelves of vinyl records, are no more. They have been digitized, saved, and transferred, and they live on this computer and three backup hard drives. They will come with me into the future, but they no longer physically exist.

I don’t own a Kindle. I’m not ready to convert my bookshelves into gigabytes – but why not? A practical consideration, maybe. Perhaps I really feel like e-book technology hasn’t quite arrived. But most likely, in the not too distant future, I will wonder what took me so long to succumb to the inevitable.

Not long ago I downloaded the Kindle application for my iPhone. Since its initial release it has been upgraded to make for a more pleasant reading experience. It’s still not a book. I’m still not a convinced. But a few more updates, and who knows?

To Kindle or Not to Kindle? That’s not really the question.

From Inside Higher Ed: The Reader.

A willingness to incorporate the Kindle into my routines does not mean abandoning print, any more than giving up the habit of inscribing my name inside the cover of a book has made me any less bibliocentric. The patterns of engagement with text – the levels of concentration you bring to reading, the various degree of intensity with which you connect with a given work – change over the course of your life. The wizards of digital media will get me to part with the Nonesuch edition of William Hazlitt’s selected essays when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. But reading a collection of scholarly papers like Metaphysical Hazlitt: Bicentenary Essays from Routledge on Kindle sounds perfectly OK – especially for anyone who can’t afford $145 for the hardback, while no paperback is to be expected.

And while it is painful to witness the erosion and collapse of large sectors of infrastructure for print culture, this is happening under the strain of internal contradictions, not because of e-book devices.

Is a literary revival on the way?

From the New York Times: Amazon to Sell E-Books for Apple Devices.

“A couple months ago a lot of people thought Amazon was slavishly imitating the Apple model,” said Bill Rosenblatt, president of the consulting business GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies. “It turns out they have a different model than Apple. They are smarter than everyone thought.”

The developments also suggest that, true to his word, Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, has little interest in the market for digital books. Mr. Jobs once dismissed the Kindle by saying “the whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Oh, Steve.