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Digital dust jackets

The most widely repeated -- and mocked -- remark from this year's BookExpo America is Sherman Alexie's assertion that the Amazon Kindle is "elitist." Paul Constant, reporting on BEA in the Stranger, gets Alexie to offer some additional thoughts about ebooks:

In an e-mail, Alexie lamented to me the potential loss of one of the great pleasures of book culture: "Have you ever fallen in love with somebody, a stranger, just because of the book they happened to be reading? And what about the recent awe of walking onto an airplane and seeing that forty or fifty people are reading the same Harry Potter novel? How many times have you talked to a stranger just because they happened to be reading a great book, an eccentric book, a book that you arrogantly thought that only you and the author and his or her mother had ever read?" That's not possible with a Kindle, he notes. You can't see what people are reading. "And then again, I wonder this: Do you think the e-book makers will ever design a machine that has a screen on the back that displays the digitized cover art of the book that is being read? Will that make me happy? Don't know."

I suspect Alexie's real objection to ebooks is that they're different from what he's used to. "I'm middle-aged and set in my ways" isn't much of an argument, though, so he's using his creative skills to dream up other objections. Ebooks are elitist. They don't have cover art. They're on my damn lawn.

I empathize. I've raised some pretty silly objections to new technology myself over the years. (Electronic reference works? But it's so much easier to just grab a book off a shelf! Besides, I like lugging 22-volume encyclopedias from house to house. And don't give me that nonsense about 'embedded video'; if I want to watch something, I'll turn on the TV...)

I actually think the idea of electronic book jackets is pretty cool. But Alexie hasn't thought it all the way through. For one thing, not everybody wants the world to know what they're reading (Lisa adds: not everybody wants strangers falling in love with them on airplanes, either).

As for me, if I'm paying for an extra display screen, I want control over what it displays, and once I've got that, there's no reason why the "cover art" and the text have to match. Maybe I'm reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on this plane flight. But the book jacket I want you to see is this one:

Bad Monkeys

And when I'm not advertising one of my own novels, I'd happily accept cash, or free ebooks, to pimp someone else's product. If I put a Nike logo on the back of my Kindle in exchange for Amazon store credit, does that make me an elitist?


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 17th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
Sherman Alexie is an interesting guy, and I'd like to hear more about why he thinks the Kindle is elitist; I bet he has some good points but I wouldn't want to guess at them.

But aside from that, the point he makes is applicable to electronic media evolution in general. We don't have to listen to music together at the radio any more; my iPod is only in MY ear. I don't have album covers in my living room any more; my music is digital and hidden in my laptop. When the bulk of my books are digital (and I love my Kindle - and have read books of yours on it!), I will lose the ability to quickly find a book on my shelves by my vague remembrance of its color and shape - and my guests will no longer have the ability to browse through my collection and find something interesting to read while at my house. The privatization of media does have social consequences.
Jun. 17th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
I'd like to have the option to display something on a back screen, and I'd definitely be annoyed if I couldn't choose what was displayed. I don't see any issues personally with hiding your porn behind a Bad Monkeys cover or selling ad space, though
Jun. 17th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)
I suspect that if there is an issue, it'll be with the publishers or possibly Amazon wanting to maintain control of that second screen (and any associated revenue).
Jun. 17th, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC)
I imagine that, like me, Alexie is an incorrigible book snoop. Personally, I'd be happy if everyone else read on Kindles, so I wouldn't have the urge to squint at the barely-visible binding or the tiny header along the right hand page.

Jun. 17th, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
Of course the Kindle is elitist. At least if you consider having substantial disposable income a feature of the elites. Offhand, I don't know how many trips to Half Price Books and St. Vincent de Paul would be funded by the Kindle's price tag, but quite a few, I reckon, especially once you add $10 per actual book on top of that.

As with other technologies, the price will eventually come down, but for anyone struggling to put gas in their car or keep the electricity on, spending almost $400 for a digital book reader is nuts.
Jun. 17th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
If you're thinking in terms of used book prices, then $400 does seem like a lot of money. On the other hand, if you consider what you'd spend on a TV or a laptop computer, it's a lot more reasonable.

Another price comparison worth making is to bookshelves. The Kindle 2 can supposedly hold around 1500 titles. Think about what it'd cost to get physical shelving for that many books, and again, it's not that bad a deal.
Jun. 17th, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
If you're thinking in terms of used book prices, then $400 does seem like a lot of money. On the other hand, if you consider what you'd spend on a TV or a laptop computer, it's a lot more reasonable.

Not really.

If you don't have a spare $400, it's pretty much insurmountable. That's what I mean about elites -- you're assuming a fair bit of disposable income float for something redundant -- a pure luxury item. Being able to comfortably afford luxury items is surely one of the defining characteristics of elites.

Besides, it's apples and oranges. People don't buy televisions or computers just to be able to read a book. People buy books for that. And since reading books and periodicals is the only thing the Kindle is good for, comparing it to more versatile platforms by price point is off point. The kinds of people who already have a laptop and a sufficiently up-to-date TV that they aren't looking to replace it are going to be financially comfortable, to say the least. (If they don't already have both, well, choosing any other technology over a television set is pretty well a sign of top-out-of-sight, old money elites. And nobody with any sense would buy a Kindle instead of a laptop.)

Moreover, televisions and computers (hardly anyone "needs" a laptop per se, and those who do are pretty well definitionally in the elite again) are sufficiently established technologies that it's often possible to get a working one free, or certainly cheaply. If you automatically think "buy new" you're assuming a level of disposable income which is not general. Not for people living within their means, and we all know what happens to those who don't, don't we?

Another price comparison worth making is to bookshelves. The Kindle 2 can supposedly hold around 1500 titles. Think about what it'd cost to get physical shelving for that many books, and again, it's not that bad a deal.

I can build a pine bookcase that holds roughly 125-150 books for about $20. Less if I can find somewhere to salvage the 1x8 lumber. $400 buys me 20 bookcases, or enough shelf space to house between 2,500 and 3,000 books. And, unlike the Kindle, it doesn't have to be spent in a lump sum. Besides, I hold on to a fair few of the books I buy, relative to normal people, but even so it's nothing like 100%. I'd probably have to buy 3,000 books to wind up keeping $1500 of them. What the Kindle buys you is the luxury of not having to cull your books.

Jun. 18th, 2009 02:00 pm (UTC)
People don't buy televisions or computers just to be able to read a book.

I wouldn't buy a Kindle just to be able to read a book either. I'd buy it to get an entire reading library in a 10-ounce package.

Sure, it's a luxury item (and at least for now, one that I can't afford). But "elitist" is a word I associate more with status symbols and conspicuous consumption, and that's really not the sense I get from the Kindle owners I know. They're into it for the portability and convenience, not to impress the neighbors.
Jun. 18th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
Okay, that may be the connotation you associate with the word, but I don't think it's a general one. Certainly not one I would use, and doubtful that it's part of what Sherman Alexie meant. (The man grew up on a reservation in Eastern Washington/Western Idaho and had long spells of living on potatoes and Community cheese, so he has a much more concrete and personal idea of what life in real, grim poverty is like than I have.)

And that 'reading library in a 10-ounce package'? At present rates, buying it would cost you $15,400, once you count the books. Spending the price of a new car for personal convenience doesn't strike you as in the least ostentatious?
Jun. 18th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
Well, the aggregate value of my print library runs into the thousands of dollars, too, and I don't consider it ostentatious. Of course I didn't buy it all at once, and if and when I get a Kindle, I'm not going to drop 15 grand on ebooks in a single day either. The idea, for me at least, wouldn't be to duplicate the library I already have (except for a select group of "desert island" books), but to build a complimentary traveling library, a few volumes at a time.
Jun. 18th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
the aggregate value of my print library runs into the thousands of dollars, too, and I don't consider it ostentatious.

Book people don't, ordinarily. That doesn't mean they're right, out among the general population. I don't normally think twice about our books, either, between the times when a non-reader steps into my house and does the non-reader goggle at the (these days very much svelter) bookcases and says, in tones of mixed awe and horror, "Have you read all those books?!?

There are significant segments of the populace for whom displaying books is very ostentatious indeed. This is why you get antiquarian sellers dealing in books-by-the-foot, and the local dealer who sells gorgeous old 19th century leather-bound gilt volumes in Swedish, forsooth, for display purpose only. (He only wants to know what color and look you want, not the subject matter or author or petty details like that...I keep being tempted to buy a few since I happen to read Swedish, but the $80 minimum order -- for 10 books, in order to fill a single shelf -- seems a bit much for a lark.)

And I know that people like us are unusual, because every time I deal with professional movers I have to remember to make sure they estimate moving costs in person. Otherwise they will radically underestimate the time and manpower it will take to move our household, because they simply will not otherwise be convinced to account sufficiently for the books.
Ted Chiang [myopenid.com]
Jun. 17th, 2009 10:43 pm (UTC)
But the Kindle isn't a substitute for a TV or a laptop; it's a substitute for physical books. In terms of the technology contained, the price is probably reasonable, but it's still competing against a very low-tech alternative.

And you don't have to buy a bunch of bookcases before you can start reading; they're not an upfront cost. Bookcases also last a long time; we don't know how long a Kindle lasts, but the average lifespan of a laptop is five years, I think. It may be more like renting bookcases.
Jun. 18th, 2009 02:22 pm (UTC)
My point with the TV/laptop analogy was just that $400 isn't an unusual price for a consumer electronic device.

It's still really expensive, of course, although the real sticking point for me isn't the cost of the reader, it's the price of the books.
Jun. 21st, 2009 05:04 am (UTC)
Actually I think $400 is kind of a lot for a consumer electronic device. It's about the lower limit of what you could pay for a computer, sure, but for $400 you could get five DVD players or four MP3 players, three digital cameras or two TVs. Or eight microwaves, five dorm fridges, one (smallish) kitchen refrigerator, or one washing machine. They might not be made by anyone you've heard of, and you might have to shop at Wal-Mart to find them that cheap, but the option exists.
Jun. 18th, 2009 07:05 pm (UTC)
Ah, and another way in which e-books are elitist: it's pretty hard to buy one without a computer and a high speed internet connection either at home or at work. There are still plenty of people who have neither.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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