Tuesday, March 31, 2009

To Kindle or not to Kindle? Round II

I own thousands of books. Old-fashioned pasteboard, buckram, leather and paper. I love the written word in all its forms and the ebook is something I am very gradually coming to terms with over the Luddite impulses that have generally ruled my reading life.

As part of my ongoing internal wrestling match on the incipient eBook revolution, I've been researching the potential prizes and pitfalls of the current iteration of the phenomenon.  

The Defender... Awhile back, Newsweek Published this Op/Ed by Techie Geek Chic Jacob Weisberg In Defense Of the Kindle makes the argument that the Kindle - while clunky - is a step forward for struggling publishers and writers. He scores several good points regarding the inevitability of the e-book as a format and makes good mileage with his theme that "sure it stinks now, but do does every technology when it first comes out, be patient."

The ebook may well be inevitable. But is the Kindle?

A Kindle world is a world where your books are infinitely portable - as long as you don't lose your $400 Kindle reader. Your books don't belong to you, but you have a limited lease to read them, a very limited ability to loan them to others. I pick on the Kindle because it's the big fish and the easiest target, but this is a model that is propogating all over the place in various forms. The Sony eReader is much the same (also $400) a device that gives you access to a digital library of books that you can't really pass to the guy next to you on the airplane.  

Which brings us to our Challenger... Literary agent Michael Bourret wrote an interesting blog post at his agency's (DG) blog titled "Is Kindle a Danger To Ownership?" (He was apparently inspired by this article in the Christian Science Monitor.) Both Michael and CSM make a compelling case that our libraries are headed the way of our movies and music, down a road where the concept of "owning" a book you buy is a foreign concept and loaning a well-loved paperback to your friend is a thing of the past. Michael and CSM both point out that there is a middle ground, a path that does not take us down the Kindle road toward a third party claiming proprietary ownership of our libraries. A hybrid model where the purchase of a hardcopy comes with a free ebook version of the text is working for several publishers. A model that can reflect the current culture of a book as a possession, where the word-of-mouth can be accompanied by the load of a well-loved copy of the text. A loan that often leads to more sales for an author and a broadened fanbase.  

And then there's me... I'm still trying to make up my mind about the Kindle. To be honest, (aside from the price) the most significant drawback for me is the fact that you don't want to use an eReader in the bath tub or on a sandy beach. I like to read in circumstances that the eReaders of the world might consider "adverse conditions". My reading habits aside, I'm still torn on the whole thing. Like I said, the ebook might be inevitable, but the platform isn't necessarily. The idea of a world where we don't own the books we buy makes me intensely uncomfortable. As an avid collector of books, the very idea is anathema to me. I can come to terms with the idea that the ebook is an environmental necessity. That the forests of the world cannot support the creation of yet another mountain range of pulp paperbacks to match the ten or twenty the publishing industry has generated in the last hundred years or so. And with the written record of culture in the industrialized world growing exponentially, this is ever more true with each passing year.

Nevertheless, there are cross-platform formats available already which might mean we can avoid a Betamax-vs-VHS problem (and remember that the lesser of those two won that bout) between the Sony eReader and the Kindle and avert a future where the reader never feels that they own the book they hold in their hands. It's a future where recommending a new author or idea you just discovered to your friends necessitates either a broken law (or Terms of Use contract) or an immediate outlay of cash before they can see if you're right -- where such recommendations become less common thereby and word-of-mouth authors die on the vine.

In the snarl of Digital Rights Management and contracts and whathaveyou, the larger picture so often gets obscured... Whether it's ink or electrons, the growth or literary culture and the transmission of ideas depends largely upon the works belonging to the reader, not to the librarian.


Please let me know what you think of Kindle, the Sony eReader, and others as well as eBooks in general in the comments section.


  1. I prefer to read "DRM" not as "digital rights management," but as "digital restrictions management." Because that's what it is. It manages the restrictions that you, as a reader, have imposed on you by publishers.

    I don't like the Kindle and will not buy one if it gives me fewer rights than a book. For example, can I loan it to a friend? Sell it if I decide I don't like it after all? Currently, I cannot do this short of selling or loaning the entire reader. To me, that is unacceptable. I'll stick with analog reading.

    You might find this page illuminating:


    It's written by the guy behind the GNU software and license, the software that makes Linux and Unix usable. He has a whole section on DRM, copyright, and why the public interest supercedes a handful of publishers.



    Is Stallman's group's specific anti-DRM campaign.

    I completely support the rights of authors. But I reject that they have the right to break my stuff, or declare me a criminal for doing normal, everyday things.

  2. The designers of these products apparently haven't taken into account the Vacation Reader. While the format is good for carrying multiple tomes onto a plane without adding extra weight; what about the person who stretches out in their lounge chair to read while soaking some rays by the pool or ocean? And people taking a cruise, should apparently, just leave their electronic books at home.

    All I'm saying is the designers need to go back to their electronic design board for the hardware if they expect me to give up my paper books.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).