Posted by: oneyearbook | June 13, 2009

Early adopters, Part II

Some writers have come out and said that they would be happy if their books were never available for purchase on the Kindle. On the basis of my earlier post about my Luddite-leanings, you might wonder if I will someday be one of them.

The Gutes himself, Man of the Millennium

The Gutes himself, Man of the Millennium

Well, no. I’m wishy-washy about the power of Internet apps over our social lives, but not about the expansion of the literary world by reading technology. I remember when A&E did its Biography of the Millennium show, naming the top 100 (powerful, influential, world-changing) people of the last millennium. As it crept up to number one my family sat rapt, totally unable to guess who number one would be. We were blown away by the absolute rightness of their choice: Gutenberg. Of course.  Good ol’ printing press.

Not that I’m saying the Kindle is the new printing press, or even that the e-book in general will have that impact. But when you look at the overall concept, of a digital, web-linked literary product, and the impact it’s already having (authors putting their books only on the Internet, writers in Japan creating the ‘cell-phone novel,’ the reduction in print costs and thus in price that an e-book reader allows), I think I’d personally say that it’s a great thing. People have been complaining that there isn’t enough innovation in the publishing and literary world; if we run with this, there will be.

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ann Kirschner does an experiment: she reads Dickens with four different technologies, to see how the experience changes. Paperback book, Kindle, iPhone, and audiobook are her choices. I will say here that I am not a big fan of audiobooks; in general I find them too slow. (I read quite fast, and have grown accustomed to my own pace.) She says that she thinks in the end that the largest percentage of reading was done via audiobook, because it could be done anywhere; and she writes what seems like a sort of elegy for the paperback copy: “In a book about how the present is haunted by the past, I was confronting my old self through the medium of the physical book, still in great condition, still fitting perfectly in my hands. How dare we think that anything could replace it? Impossible to imagine that any of these newfangled devices could last nearly 40 years. The perfume of old paper filled the air.”

But the big winner of the article, in a sense, was the iPhone. She found it just as easy to read on the iPhone as on the larger-screened Kindle – maybe easier, actually. And the practicality of having a device that is more than just a portable book reader makes sense, fiscally. To me the most interesting point there is that while she sees lots of middle-aged people reading Kindles on vacation, she doesn’t think that the youth are buying them. I imagine not – even if I lived in the States, and could therefore actually use one, I would find it cost-prohibitive at this point, even though the books are cheaper. However the iPhone – which one would be buying for a different function entirely – can be used to buy books from the Kindle catalogue. Convincing. I suspect we will see, as the publishing industry tries to move forward, books that are written, as the Japanese ones are, with a phone-reading audience in mind. Galling, perhaps, for we so-called ‘literary’ authors; but in genre fiction, where many books are obviously written with the needs of a specific target audience wholly in mind, the transition will be easier, and faster.

I don’t think we should fear the coming changes. The printing press changed things immensely, and now, looking back, we celebrate. Let’s predict the same thing for this smaller revolution and move forward with confidence.

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