2010 proved to be the year the book died, or so it seems from many pundits and book bloggers out there. The reason: new technologies like the Kindle and the iPad, which moved into the mainstream this year, have supposedly killed off the book. Book sales are down, according to many estimates, and the act of reading itself seems to be at risk as a result of this changing market, according to many.
At the same time, e-book sales continue to rise, reading devices and apps have grown in popularity, and online literary publications have thrived in the midst of this new technology. In addition, the recession has created an increase in used book sales, and from my own very unscientific observations, books are still all around us. Despite this, many continue to declare the slow and painful death of the book. The blame is put on electronic reading and reading devices, an easy scapegoat to what appears to be the end of reading as we know it as referenced by many of these authors.
I will come out and state my personal bias: my Kindle has revolutionized the way I read and process ideas. With this new technology, I admit that something has been lost. But at the same time, something new has been gained, and I don’t view my Kindle as killing off my desire to read physical books. Instead, I view it as something that has enhanced the way I read and interact with text. I still read physical books, and love them. Most people who own eReaders still do. But I do not see the two as separate from each other: reading is reading, and technology might change how, where, and in what object we read but the pleasure of reading remains the same.
I bring up these ideas in part to respond to an article by Kyle Minor that appeared on HTMLGIANT today. Minor reflects on the Kindle and why the debate surrounding the physicality of the book should matter to readers and writers alike. While coming to the conclusion that reading on a Kindle can be a pleasurable experience, Minor frames his article with some of the objections he had and still has to the Kindle. At the beginning, he makes this point regarding why he avoided the Kindle for so long:
[I]n a book whose structural trappings (the distances between numbered parts or chapters, some physically implicit invitation to flip around among moving parts) are meant to transparently convey something about how the reader ought to enter into and understand it (Roth’s American Pastoral, Coetzee’s Disgrace, Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Nabokov’s Pale Fire), the abandonment of the physical book also means the abandonment of a habit common to many sophisticated readers — the act of taking a book’s measure by a frequent flipping-around comparison of the part with the whole and subsequent thinking about how that impacts the way the book does the thing the book does.*
The physicality of a book does make a difference, and Minor reveals a technological problem with the eReader. As a technology, it might not yet be mature enough to elicit this type of sophisticated reading, but it is perfect for casual reading. He goes on to state that while this is a hurdle to a reader’s ability to dive into books in the same way on a Kindle, the Kindle’s convenience and quick access to a multitude of books allows him to understand (cautiously) its appeal to readers and writers alike. At the end of his article, he concludes ambiguously about the future of the book industry:
Do I still think about the various high-minded objections? I do. I still think that e-books are bad for writers, economically speaking, and probably aesthetically, too (Will we eventually be robbed of physical copies of the thing that cost us years to make?) Maybe they’re good for readers, though, and if readers have a new reason to be enthusiastic about books, maybe that’s good for writers. Would I give my books away for free if it ensured them a massive audience, even though it would keep me from making money on them? Maybe. Do I think writers ought to be compensated for their work. Of course, and, if the writer is me, well-compensated. Do I think it’s unhealthy for ebooks to tank booksellers the way big chains tanked indies? Yes. Am I distrustful of million-tentacled corporate monsters like Amazon? Very. Is there anything significant I can do about it? Not any more likely than my chances of getting people to abstain from MP3s and take up vinyl, culture-wide. It’s not going to happen.*
While I understand these objections, and agree that in ebooks a part of the interactivity of reading is lost, I still view the ebook as one more viable addition to the production of the book. It is a positive addition, and it is one that will only serve to bolster the importance of literature and the book industry for years to come.
Just as other book technologies have helped to add to the way we interact with text, the ebook will help, rather than destroy, the book as we know it (as an example, look at mass-produced paperbacks in the early 20th Century and the periodical in the early 19th Century and their effects on American literature). It is too easy, in many ways, to blame the medium for the sometimes negative changes in the way books are marketed and consumed, especially in our hyper-literate, over-stimulated society.
With this idea in mind, and with Minor’s interesting perspectives on the book as a physical object as a starting point (his article is well worth the read, by the way), I’d like to think that as the technology improves, so will our interactions with ebooks improve. Right now, the eReader works best for pleasure reading, but still leaves much to be desired for studying and devouring books much in the way the critic or author would like the book to be read.
Books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close play with and require a physical book to be enjoyed to their fullest potential. The depths of these books are lost on the reader without the physical book. Equally, reading a musty, leather-bound copy of Matthew Arnold’s Essays In Criticism instead of reading it in ebook or paperback form gives the work a different contextual meaning and breathes a certain life into the work that might be missed otherwise.
At the same time, reading a bestseller such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in ebook form, a physically large and imposing book to read in its hardcover version, puts the book alongside other shorter, lighter bestsellers. The smaller size changes the way one treats the book’s significance. This may provide a different reading experience. Whether good or bad, it gives the book one more layer of meaning. It’s similar to the difference in listening experience between an mp3 version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon playing on my iPod during my morning commute and the vinyl version on my home stereo in my living room. It might be the same album, but it sounds different, and my experience of it is drastically different. In this same way, as readers we must think of the ebook as providing one other reading experience, but not the definitive experience.
Ebooks do not represent the death of the book. Instead, they give the reader a different frame and context to interact with text. With time, this will influence the ways authors view their works being consumed by readers. Hopefully, this will bring new levels of sophisticated play with genre and form of literature.