Dispatches | April 26, 2012
Reading Without Care: The Depthless Culture of Ebooks
With the recent lawsuit against Apple and some of the major publishers, it may seem like some are trying to keep a dying industry alive. But here is what people who get angry about price-fixing and “expensive” ebooks don’t realize: the cost of production of ebooks is only 10% less than the cost of production of the same book in print. The thing that people forget is that when you buy a book the majority of your money does not go to a publisher: it goes into writing and editing content: it goes to authors and the people who help them refine their craft. There is a difference between those who write and those who sell, and ebook’s real service is to those who sell.
The internet has convinced people that content is free: that once it is written, they should get it fast and without having to pull out their wallets before moving onto the next item popping up on the screen. This is fine for some things, like personal twitter statuses, or news that becomes old two days after it breaks. That is content that matters now but not later. But what happens when we try to put something like literature on a screen; when we start treating an author’s hard-wrought stories and livelihood like information that can be deleted faster than it took to download?
Perhaps it all comes down to sentimentality and whether or not our emotional attachment to physical books has any value.
As a hopeful writer, the prospect of all my hours of hard work, self-hatred, and personal triumph being read on a screen and never an actual book seems like a huge slap in the face. Maybe it’s just because I want all the hours I will have spent writing instead of working at a job that provides basic health care to pay off and to mean something to other people. This may seem like a worthless idea in a society currently fixated on the price of gold, but let’s look at the value of sentimentality from a reader’s point of view.
For the reader it’s not just sentimental attachment to the experience of holding a book and smelling the pages; it’s a love and a sense of reverence for the experience you share with the author and everyone else who has read that book before you. Screens promote selfishness; they don’t beg you to think of other people: they’re personalized devices that only you control and see. When you buy someone a book for Christmas you buy him or her a hard copy, wrap it in pretty paper, and put it under the tree. You don’t tell them your credit card number so they can download The Hunger Games onto their Kindle or iPad. Ebooks take the community and the bond out of books. People don’t lend friends their Kindles; you lend paperbacks and don’t get too upset when they are never returned because they have a new home now.
When I was young, after I got past the phase of Nancy Drew and Goosebumps, I began asking my father for reading suggestions. He would walk me to an old, closed bookcase his grandfather had made and pull from it a book he or my mother had owned and loved for years. With the book he would give me one understated line like, “Now here’s a real adventure story,” for The Hobbit or, “I’ll be really impressed if you can make it through that one” for Gravity’s Rainbow.
I would sit by that bookcase and read the shelves and shelves of titles, imaging all the stories my parents had collected, and all the work I would have to put in to learn everything they knew and more. And I was excited by this task, not daunted, because their physical form in my great grandfather’s bookcase made these books a part of my family, not just a reading list.
There is an importance to the permanence of something printed on paper rather than digitized on a screen. Books need time to grow, to grow meaning and love between the author and readers. Putting books on a screen and reducing them to cost of production seems like the inevitable capitalist outcome of the writing industry, but it’s not. That sentimentality behind reading a hardcopy has value for the consumer, but it’s a long-term investment. Reading and writing is about making connections and remembering all the places you still have to go for years to come, a sentiment that could potentially be forgotten on a screen. I have never made it through Gravity’s Rainbow but every night I fall asleep with it on the shelf next to my bed, and it is a constant reminder of where I came from and who I am trying to be.
Facebook statuses, news blogs, tumblers, stumble upons, tweets, pintrests, memes, are all constantly updated on our screens so fast and so often that we simply can’t keep up and consider how it all got there. So we shrug and say, “It’s magic,” and move on because our lives demand it, but that mentality cannot be applied to writing because the ultimate consequence is the undervaluing of the author and the strenuous process of writing itself. If writers have to try to keep up with a fast and cheap online system, quantity, not quality, will be the necessary goal as the ability to feed ourselves becomes more dependent on replacing the story just deleted off of somebody’s Kindle instead of creating a work that will be loved and nestled in a family bookcase for generations to come.
This blog post is temporary; that’s the nature of these things. It seems important or convincing right now as you read it, but as soon as a new post is up, the relevant topic will change and mine will eventually get lost and forgotten in the enormous slush and invisibility of the internet. And that’s OK. It’s a blog post, it’s not meant to be permanent. But some things are. Some writing is more important than a free, quick read and deserves merit and visibility and a home of actual pages and binding. Sometimes good stories, essays, poems, and plays contain a very real and very intimate part of an author’s life and deserve to be remembered long after today and this year. By putting everything on a screen how do we know what we mistakenly make obsolete? How can a writer and good writing survive in a world where their words can so easily be deleted or clicked off a screen?
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