Thursday, September 23, 2010


The paper book is dying. Everybody says so. The publishing industry seems to consider its demise a fait accompli and is struggling to retool for the age of electronic books, the Kindle era. (Couldn't have thought up an e-reader name less redolent of Nazi book burnings?) The future's coming, and it's going to kick the publishing industry's ass and deliver the coup de grace to an already moribund bookselling business. A few Borders and Barnes & Noble megastores might survive as middle-class 'literary cafes' in the metropolitan suburbs, but the small, independent bookstores that used to dot the American landscape like so many Audenesque lightpoints from Provincetown to Portland are going, going--you get the picture.

I know, I know...All these ominous warnings were sounded 15 years ago when the villain was that evil "internets," but the web turned out to be, at least for a while, a boon to the book business, connecting buyers and sellers all over the world and facilitating transactions that would've been impossible only a few years earlier. (I know a book dealer in Ohio who actually sold Korans to Saudi Arabia. No joke.) But the situation for the book as we've known it is much more desperate today. In the not-too-distant future, all new books (and all new editions of old books) will be disseminated and read electronically. Now is the time to think about the consequences of this change and try to alleviate the most negative ones. Everyone has heard the 'pro' side of the e-book conversation--it mostly boils down to portability and (that Great Corporate God) efficiency--but here are a few 'cons' that haven't received sufficient attention:

Ease of Censorship. If some powerful entity wishes to alter or destroy my copy of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," their agents would be forced to break into my home and search my non-ordered bookcases and stacks for several hours until they accidentally happened upon my Modern Library Walden and Other Writings. They would then have to either mutilate the book and replace it or confiscate it and tiptoe smugly into the night like so many triumphant Boris Badinovs. And even after all that effort, power's triumph would be only partial, for they would've failed to notice my Bantam Classics Thoreau in the almost inaccessible back row of a double-rowed shelf in another bookcase. (Damn, I just told them about it. Gotta move that book.) By contrast, electronic books are a Stalinist's wet dream. Any future totalitarian government--or the current totalitarian capitalist Chinese government, to pull an example out of thin air--that wishes to censor my electronic edition of Thoreau's essay need only politely ask a compliant e-book corporation to do the dirty deed. The next time I download another purchase to my reader, my copy of Thoreau will be silently altered or erased. Imagine how Stalin would've used this against Trotsky's books. No need for scissors, glue and incinerators; just press delete and the funny-bearded Frida Kahlo-fucker's history of the Russian Revolution is gone, gone, gone. More efficient than Mercader's ice axe.

The End of Lending, or, You Can't Always Get What You Want (And We'll Find a Way to Make You Pay Through the Nose for What You Need). Paper books can be easily loaned and borrowed. I'm speaking not of libraries (which if they continue to exist will be sites where members of the public can download e-books free of charge--and that's exactly why they will not be permitted to exist in a future Corporatist state), no, I'm talking about the types of transactions that happen between friends. The breathless "Dude, you gotta read this," accompanied by the act of passing a book into your friend's hands. The age of e-books will mark the end of this lit-geek bonding ritual:

"Dude, you read Against the Day yet?"
"Here. Catch." (Massive Pynchon novel sails across room toward slacker cowering on sofa)
"Ooops!" (Shattering of glass followed by heavy thud)
"S'alright dude. I never liked that lamp much anyway."

Try doing that with a Kindle. No, in the future such heartwarming scenes will no longer be possible. An electronic reader on which one's entire library has been loaded is hardly a lendable device. No reader will part with his entire library so a deadbeat friend too cheap to buy his own damn Kindle can read one lousy book. So this medium, despite its trumpeted portability, also makes books a less portable, more private, thing. As one might expect from a corporate product, it makes private property even more 'private' than before. In an ideal corporatist state, every book will be purchased, and those without purchasing power will have no access to books.

Environmental Impact. It seems a no-brainer: the death of the book is the rebirth of the forest. No more big green leafies going to the blade for the greater glory of J.K. Rowling's boy wizard and Dan Brown's goofball "symbologist." Hooray, right? Not so fast. More trees and more oxygen are certainly a good thing (I enjoy breathing as much as the next fella), but we don't know much about the real environmental impact of electronic reading devices. (A good resource for the current debate is the Eco-Libris website.) How recyclable are they? How and where will they be recycled? Will any of their components end up polluting the water table in 2075? Maybe good news for the forest is bad news for the ground. The one inconvenient truth we can count on is that corporations will do anything to maximize profits, even if it hastens environmental catastrophe.

And What About Oversize Books? It should surprise no one that the paper vs. pixel conversation is weighted heavily toward the types of books moved in large numbers by big commercial publishers--genre fiction, narrative nonfiction, Oprah-friendly lit fic (yes, that means you, Jonathan Franzen)--but it's unfortunate that other kinds of books seem already to have been written off. As an aesthete and art obsessive with a large collection of oversize art books and exhibition catalogues, I fear for the future of the quality art book. This is one niche genre that seems headed straight for the technological guillotine. The Kindle screen, like most computer screens--is simply too small to accommodate a good-sized painting reproduction. A work that in a large paper book can be viewed in full and in detail on a single page requires scrolling and scrunching and squinting on most computer monitors. On a Kindle screen, Janson's standard History of Art would be a nightmare of tiny illustrations. Unlike unillustrated books, oversize art books resist translation to the new medium. They are doomed.

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