Of course E-books are not bringing two thousand years of Western civilization crashing down around our ears; they do, however, represent a metaphor for what I consider to be a dysfunctional way of thinking that has been slowly corroding our quality of life for well over 50 years. We have become so enthralled with “technology” that we accept each development we are presented with as an unquestioned improvement.
That worship of technology, actually, started with the birth of practical science in the Victorian era. In the beginning most of the discoveries being made certainly were improvements. No one could deny that the automobile was better than horse and buggies, and electric light is far safer and more convenient than gaslight, although I prefer the delicate glow of a flickering flame to the harsh glare of compact fluorescents.
As the twentieth century progressed, though, our technological developments have moved us further and further from a life with beauty and context. The decorative excesses of the Victorian era, and in some cases they truly were excessive, bred a feeling of distrust in decoration. By the 1920’s and particularly the 30’s, to be “modern” was to be cold, functional, striped down to the barest essentials. Yet the hearts of people still earned for beauty. The architecture of the Bauhaus, while critically acclaimed, never gained popular approval.
However, after World War 2, soldiers came home to find “modernism” had been used as leverage to reduce ceiling heights to eight feet and crown moldings to the barest sliver of carving to cover the joint between wall and ceiling. The rows of houses being constructed in suburban subdivisions, while still bastardized reflections of every architectural style from the past 500 years, were not even graceful replicas; rather, they were the same box with a vague references to detail tacked on a superficial façade, a gothic pointed arch here, a broken pediment cut from plywood there, and obligatory non-functional shutters, everywhere.
This trend is not simply architectural. Home cooked meals, made from real ingredients were replaced with almost tasteless pre-made frozen dinners- so amazing, so high-tech, so space age in their aluminum trays that, themselves, would soon be replaced with plastic. Nylon replaced silk and nylon was replaced with polyester, leading to possibly the most uncomfortable garment since Catholic penitents donned burlap “hair shirts”…double knit polyester suits. We accepted each and every degradation of our pleasure and quality of life with open arms and no objection because it was “new” and “improved” and scientific.
The modern mind is a schizophrenic one in which, decade after decade, we are presented with “improvements” to our lives at the same time that the out-dated former example mysteriously becomes a luxury. High ceilings, hardwood floors, natural fabrics, home cooking, and so many other things that were once taken for granted as the everyday aspects of our material world have been updated out of our ordinary lives and then sold back to us at premium prices, gilded with the bittersweet longing of nostalgia.
The latest in this long line of improvements is the E-book; although the improvements come so fast now-days pointing to “the latest” is like pointing at leaves floating down a stream. E-books are revolutionizing the world of Print, solving the mysterious problem of the sky rocketing price of printing books, not to mention the heretofore unrecognized problem of books being so terribly unwieldy as to be un-transportable. Odd that people have managed that task for around 600 years. Perhaps medical science should be investigating the atrophy of arm strength in contemporary humans.
The book industry is, allegedly, on the brink of collapse, and the Kindle (et al.) is riding in like the Cowboy in the white hat to save the future of reading for all of us. Of course the technophiles, still longing for the Jetson’s fantasy of the 21st century that they were sold by Saturday morning TV, 40 years ago, are thrilled and a younger generation who have grown up in a world where everything but their toothbrush has a digital readout, and there are even toothbrushes with built in timers that beep after the appropriate two minutes of brushing, embrace this new transformation of one of the few remaining low tech human activities into one utterly dependant on electricity, and the magic of circuitry and semi-conductors.
First there is simply the obvious question of everything that can go wrong. A book does not lose power when you forget to charge it. The spine of a book may break when you drop it, but the pages are still readable. As long as the Latin alphabet is still the basis for Western communication, books will be readable. How many technologies for playing music and video have we been through in the past 40 years, and how many works have been lost because they didn’t make the conversion? How long will a Kindle last before the technology is improved and, like my new computer that wont read my “old” floppy discs, suddenly no longer embrace the books that it once displayed?
Books are so much more than simply collections of words. When I was in college, I took two quarters of classic French literature. One day, I went to the University library to check out a book of Baudelaire’s poetry. How convenient it would be if this enormous seven story building, packed with dusty volumes could be reduced to a server that would easily fit in the average sized classroom and be accessed by E-Readers from anywhere on campus.
Perhaps. But then I would not have the amazing experience that I did. I looked this book up in the computerized card file, rode the elevator to the appropriate floor, wondered through the stacks to find the shelf. I pulled an ancient book from the stacks and held its worn leather binding in my hands. It was an original copy from the late 1700’s. Opening the cover I discovered a French lending library label from the period. Next to that was an original UGA library label, listing the “alcove” and “shelf” on which the book had been placed over 150 years ago, long before the Library of Congress gave all the books in the world a number. Turning to the back cover was an old cardstock library pouch with the checkout card still in place. The last date stamped was 1954.
I held a book in my hands, printed almost 200 years earlier, in a world that is only an intellectual fantasy in my mind. How many young hands held that book between then and now? How were they dressed, what did they think, what room did they stand in as they held it? The last time some one read that book, my own parents were still in High School and yet it sat on that shelf waiting for me take it down, carry it carefully back to my room, and listen in my mind as Baudelaire’s voice, slightly fractured by my still unsteady French, spoke to me down through the halls of history; spoke to me through a book, a copy of which he likely held in his own hands.
I have a book that I found by accident years ago in a wonderful old used bookstore in Atlanta. At that time I had just recently learned of Havelock Ellis, early twentieth century philosopher, sociologist, and fellow gay man. The book is called “The Dance of Life,” and it has been enormously influential in my own worldview. That day, however, it was simply his name that caught my eye.
It wasn’t a title that I recognized, which in a way made it even more interesting. Then I opened the cover. Ellis had published it in 1923 but this volume was of the 15th printing, three years later in 1926. Being a twentieth century book, it has a humble cloth cover with a faded gilt title stamped on the spine; no deckled rag paper, or marbled edges. When I opened the cover, though I found an inscription on the end paper.
Written in blue fountain pen, in the kind of neat script that almost no one knows any more, it says “Jimmy dear-it’s potent just like Newark(?) ‘apple jack’ but I’ll be surprised if you don’t like it. Sammy” This amazing book written by one of the men who helped lay the very first foundations of a modern Gay identity was given by one male friend to another 60 years before I found it and took their very good advice to give it a try. I don’t know that they were gay, and maybe it’s prejudiced to assume that two adult men would be just because they call each other “Jimmy” and “Sammy” with obvious affection. It is however, a tangible link between them and myself, fellow readers and Ellis fans, if nothing else.
I have another book given to me years ago by my late lover and spiritual mentor. He introduced me to a philosophy that is still deeply important to me today. My friend was a good friend and student of the author who wrote the book and founded the movement. My copy is autographed by the Master and then dedicated to me by my friend, much like Sammy’s gift to Jimmy 60 years before. I have another important book in my collection whose three authors I have been privileged to call friends. One of the authors was house bound with severe health problems by the time the book was published and I guess my copy is one of only a few dozen, at most, with dedications from all three of them.
A book is more than words on a page. A book is a living artifact of history. Even those who don’t appreciate books generally respect their value. Books are inevitably among the discarded items given to the thrift store, as “worth something to someone,” rather than set on the curb with the trash. Used books remain a thriving market, although the profit margin on operating a store is narrow. This is one of the ways in which modern technology has improved things. The Internet has made it possible to locate rare and obscure books all over the world.
Several friends with experience in the publishing industry have told me that the reality is that publishing is only marginally worse off than it has ever been. Historically, it was never a market with large profit margins. Few of the Great Works of literature were best sellers.
It was, however, an endeavor with enormous intellectual cache’. Wealthy families, earning their income in more gritty ways, often owned publishing houses that barely more than broke even, just for the bragging rights of owning them. Bibliophiles squeezed a living out of their bookstores simply for the pleasure of handling these things that they loved, and spending their days in the company of equally passionate customers.
The thing that has changed far more than anything else in the market is the sale of this whole supply chain to corporate owners, with shareholders who expect not just to break even, but to have a continual growth of five or ten percent a year in clear profit. The E-book accomplishes this by removing all of the cost possible from the product. This is the driving force behind virtually every “innovation” in modern society.
The improvements we are presented with, more often than not, do not actually improve the pleasure and experience of people’s every day lives. What they improve is the profit margin for the manufacturer who continually strives to offer less, for a greater profit. If, as in the case of E-books, they can do that while lowering the price as well, they consider it a win-win situation, as do too many customers who don’t realize until later that when the smoke and mirrors are cleared away they have in fact inevitably paid less for much less, and they will end up paying much more than previously for the luxury of having what used to be a given.
Last year there was a huge scandal that, like most scandals in our deluge of news and information, raged for a few days and was quickly forgotten. In an act of inexplicable negligence Amazon put two E-books on the market, only to realize about a week later that they didn’t actually have a copyright to publish them. This was a potentially enormously costly error, so what to do? Erase them immediately, of course. The irony is that thousands of people woke the next morning to find that the book they had recently purchased had been replaced with a E-coupon to buy another book because Amazon had electronically “burned” all of its copies of George Orwell’s “1984.”
No book could better be an icon of the dangers of the Information Age, than this classic science fiction novel that warned of a future in which the power of technology would be used to control the minds of the masses. Of course, this did not go unnoticed and Amazon quickly patched its legal loophole and returned access to the books. They apologized profusely and yet, rather than changing the software to make such actions impossible, they merely promised that their policy had been changed so that such actions are not allowed.
This is a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If all of the books were in the physical memory of your reader, no one could remove them, but you could lose a library of a thousand volumes by leaving it on the bus, or dropping it in the bathtub. On the other hand, a thousand books stored on someone else’s server are only as secure as the person guarding the door and the power supply that sends them to you. At least the burning of the Library at Alexandria required more effort than flipping a switch.
None of the books I’ve mentioned are available on E-readers. The Dance of Life is available in a print on demand facsimile copy. I’ve purchased another rare book in that format. I also have a 100-year-old original, as well. The modern copy is cheap in construction, lacking in life, and very unlikely to last even a few decades, much less centuries. The vast majority of out of print books will never be published in E-book format.
E-readers have gotten people started reading again. This is certainly a good thing. I suspect, though, that it has not made people as whole more intellectual, or even interested in books. It has simply transformed an old activity into a new fad, by imbedding it in the latest technology. Chasing after the latest thing, these people will leave their E-readers to gather dust in a few years while they run out to buy the next big innovation in technological entertainment.
Meanwhile, those of us who always loved books, the ritual of reading, and the act of self-education will be left with these cold, dead, but oh-so terribly convenient E-readers and a vague, or maybe not so vague, wistful memory of wandering through the narrow isles between the shelves of libraries and bookstores, waiting for the random title to catch our eyes, and a cover to open like a gate to a whole new world. Certainly not the end of the world as we know it. Just one more insignificant piece shot from the stained glass window of civilization with an arrant pellet from the BB gun of “progress.” Still one might stop and wonder what’s left of the “window” when all of the panes are gone?