27 April 2009

The Debate Continues...

In a recent article by Joanne Kaufman, the issue of digital books and the publishing industry rages on.  However, she adds a new depth to the discussion:

The publishing world is all caught up in weighty questions about the Kindle and other such devices: Will they help or hurt book sales and authors’ advances? Cannibalize the industry? Galvanize it?

Please, they’re overlooking the really important concern: How will the Kindle affect literary snobbism? If you have 1,500 books on your Kindle — that’s how many it holds — does that make you any more or less of a bibliophile than if you have the same 1,500 books displayed on a shelf? (For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’ve actually read a couple of them.)

The practice of judging people by the covers of their books is old and time-honored. And the Kindle, which looks kind of like a giant white calculator, is the technology equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. If people jettison their book collections or stop buying new volumes, it will grow increasingly hard to form snap opinions about them by wandering casually into their living rooms.


It’s a safe bet that the Kindle is unlikely to attract people who seldom pick up a book or, on the other end of the spectrum, people who prowl antiquarian book fairs for first editions. But for the purpose of sizing up a stranger from afar, perhaps the biggest problem with Kindle or its kin is the camouflage factor: when no one can tell what you’re reading, how can you make it clear that you’re poring over the new Lincoln biography as opposed to, say, “He’s Just Not That Into You”?


I suppose it's a similar point that was raised as MP3 players became more popular, and people no longer had stacks and stacks of albums in plain sight by which people could judge their music tastes.  (After all, it's much easier to hide your secret love of bad hair metal on an iPod than in your living room!)

Kaufman goes on to raise other issues that will concern the literati, including the image that comes with toting, say, Anna Karenina vs. a digital book reader.  And where will it leave the faux-intellectual college students who listen to punk music, drink coffee, and read Jung, whose personalities and popularity depend on the intrigued smiles they get from girls (or guys) who notice the weighty text they're reading "for pleasure" (they don't say what type of pleasure, do they?) in the coffee house, student union, or library?

I encourage you to read her article, whether you're a literati or not.  No matter how you feel about the technology, and no matter how you feel about the issues it raises, it's a good read, and I'm interested to know your reaction.

If you have or will have a digital reader, will you still peruse brick-and-mortar bookshops?  Will you still relish the weight of a book on your lap, or the smell of ink and paper when you open your favorite paperback for the thousandth time?



  1. I think Kindle or something like it is definitley the 'wave of the future'. Personally I am not even going to be interested until they get to Kindle 5 or so (just think how much iPods have changed in a relatively short time).

    I also have reservations about paying for all these books. We're big fans of the public library and use it a lot. I can't imagine suddenly paying for all these books I now check-out for free. The other reservation I have is that they want you to pay for the same newspapers you can now read for free via the internet.

    Eventually there will be a solid business model that will work.

  2. Good point on the cost of books and newspapers.

    I agree that I think things will eventually balance out from a business stand-point. I just hope they don't stop making real books!


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