beyond the printed page: Kindling a new future or a Fahrenheit 451?
Are books dead? The question seems fantastic, on the surface. However, once upon a time, the idea that the vulgate Bible, moveable type, or the printing press would revolutionize reading was sneered at by naysayers. Many literary mediums that seem antique today — like Dickensian novels published as a series of three part books, the penny press, subscription libraries, and encyclopedias — were supposed to last forever. The increasing popularity of Amazon’s Kindle reader may someday spell the death-knell for conventional print. “Technology,” said one computer engineer, “is anything that was invented after you were born” (Levy 2007).
When e-books were first introduced on the World Wide Web almost inevitably they were mocked because of the difficulty of reading from a screen. Most of the books were classics released into the public domain by authors, or small, relatively obscure and limited release e-books. Printing these books out was an arduous task, but frequently necessary, to ensure that reading material would be portable. Hauling a clunky laptop to read an entire, lengthy book was almost impossible, and it was impossible to change position to ‘get comfortable’ when reading a computer screen, or to read in bed. Moreover, for non-public domain texts, e-books had to be downloaded online in a password-protected environment through paid file transfers and then viewed with an applicable e-book reader software program (e-book overview, e-book fanatic, 2007). For many readers, it was less of a hassle to simply go to the library to read for free.
However, the more user-friendly Amazon Kindle changed the e-book world forever. Although some mocked the first Kindle’s rather clunky, 1970s design, the new version is sleeker and more user-friendly. While its “gloomy grayscale outlook” still “leaves much to be desired — especially in this flashy, look at my graphics world” engineers believe that soon colored e-book ‘paper’ will be possible on monitors like the Kindle or Sony Reader, with 80% resolution (Hodgin 2009). Perhaps graphic images will even change as the reader peruses the text, to illustrate what is being read (Hodgin 2009).
When the Kindle was first released, many protested that people would be loath to give up the medium of the printed world. But cleverly, the Kindle was designed to specifically circumvent such “Luddite’ sentiments. Although its newer incarnation is larger, it was initially designed to possess the dimensions and design of a paperback. Unlike a laptop, it does not get hot and is light enough to be comfortably held in bed. It is durable enough, unlike a laptop, to be thrust into a backpack and read on vacation. Because of a new technology known as ‘e ink,’ its screen is just as clear as a high-quality printed book, and unlike a paper book, readers can adjust the font — no need to wait for the large print version (Levy 2007). “To soothe the anxieties of print-culture stalwarts, in sleep mode the Kindle displays retro images of ancient texts, early printing presses and beloved authors like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen” (Levy 2007).
However, there are other concerns the Kindle raises about the future of print. Firstly, by definition it creates a kind of enclosed ‘body of knowledge’ that all literate individuals are supposed to want to read. The Kindle does not offer all books in print, thus creating a kind of heightened preference for the available authors and texts. For someone who relies upon the Kindle, this could mean that he or she is denied the pleasure of discovering a little-known gem by accident. Also, it could make it more difficult for new, innovative, and untested authors to break into the literary scene in a Kindle-dependant world, given that devotees of the Kindle are likely to gravitate towards books that they can download upon this new, expensive ‘toy.’
Technology, one could argue is not necessarily bad for new writers. True, new authors now have the medium of blogs to disseminate their words. But blogs, unlike books (electronic or otherwise) are read largely for free. Thus, paid, professional new authors could face two forms of grueling competition — those established authors on the Kindle, and the unprofessional free press in the blog-o-sphere. The Kindle is, despite its revolutionary quality ultimately a tool of one specific corporation. “Specifically, it’s an extension of the familiar Amazon store (where, of course, Kindles will be sold). Amazon has designed the Kindle to operate totally independent of a computer: you can use it to go to the store, browse for books, check out your personalized recommendations, and read reader reviews and post new ones, tapping out the words on a thumb-friendly keyboard. Buying a book with a Kindle is a one-touch process” (Levy 2007). It encourages consumption and purchasing of literary material filtered through one corporation’s portal. Independent bookstores that showcased new authors will find it even more difficult to survive in the new, ‘Kindled’ world.
The Kindle’s domination extends not only to fiction, but also to news. The Kindle “not only displays the news” but it “also speaks it with a computerized voice” with free downloadable new pronunciations for the week’s newsmakers (Arango 2009). However, the domination of the Kindle in the news media could come at a heavy price — by only offering selected news outlets, an increasingly limited array of media channels could grow even more insidiously narrow, as more people use the Kindle. Combined with the ability of the newsreader online to cherry-pick what ideological blogs he or she enjoys reading online and limited newspapers available on the Kindle, the range of views and story offerings could contract even further in the near future. Consumers are already loathe to pay for paper newspapers, now that an entire generation has grown accustomed to accessing the news online, the Kindle seems like a natural outgrowth of this dependency — even readers on planes and subways will no longer want to read a paper newspaper. Once again, stumbling upon a new newspaper or media outlet is less likely with the Kindle. People will very likely not bother to read local newspapers on a ‘stopover’ or a short vacation, perhaps even if they move to a new area.
However, if the average Kindle reader could become an overly captive audience for Amazon.com books and Kindle-available news, an even more captive audience is perhaps the poor college student, caught in a web of classes that require college textbooks. Of course, college students have always complained about the prices of textbooks. But at least penny-pinching students could share with other students in the class, read the text on reserve, or better yet buy second-hand textbooks. Now, more and more courses are requiring electronic textbooks. The student must by the new version, because there are so many differences between each yearly edition, given the greater ease of editing online content. Sharing and reading at the library is not an option for electronic texts. “The National Association of College Stores conducted a study that found that students spend on average $702/year on textbooks. This equates to a total expense of $2,808 on textbooks over a 4-year college experience,” and these books, unlike textbooks in the past, cannot be sold back to the campus bookstore or to other students (“The Problem with Textbooks on a Kindle,” Gagetopia, 2009). It should also be added that unlike works of fiction or nonfiction that a student might wish to read again, textbooks are not only not ‘page turners’ (electronic or otherwise) once a student graduates, but the material may quickly grow obsolete. Would anyone want to read a 2001 college economics textbook, for example, in 2009?
Electronic textbooks and books are highly profitable for media outlets like Amazon and for established authors. On one hand, they make reading easier and more convenient. But they also create an increasingly corporate and less competitive literary marketplace. Students are likely to be the first to notice this, as the prices of their textbooks increase. But all consumers, as the range of views and works available on Kindles and other electronic venues continue to dominate the marketplace, may ultimately suffer, financially and intellectually.
Arango, Tim. “The President’s Name Trips Up a Would-Be Voice of the News” The New York
Times. 8 May 2009. 19 May 2009.
“e-book overview.” e-book fanatic. 2007. 19 May 2009.
Hodgin, Rick. Not-so-distant future Kindle-like e-book readers to have color displays.
19 May 2009.
Levy, Stephen. “The Future of Reading.” Newsweek. 27 Nov 2007. 19 May 2009.
“The Problem with Textbooks on a Kindle.” Gadgetopia. 12 May 2009. 19 May 2009.
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