It happened yesterday. My first e-chill. On a routine login to my favourite on-line book source (necessitated, I might add, because my local bookstore has closed) I was horrified to discover that the book I wanted was only available as an e-book. The import of the single e-book image on the page didn’t immediately sink in — somehow I thought this moment would occur much further in the future. I waited impatiently for the rest of the page to load, the part with the real books, poked around in vain for hidden links, only to eventually realize that if I wanted to buy this book from this supplier, it was e-book or no book. Ahah! I thought. This explains why e-books sales are purportedly outstripping real book sales!
My reaction, as non-owner of an e-reading device was an ugly mixture of fury and thwarted acquisitiveness plus a strange urge to grab all the books I own and head north. North, to find some as yet e-free utopia, whereupon I would set about founding a back-to-books cult, peace-loving, but determined, dedicated to inscribing Canlit classics onto stone tablets, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, our cowled ears soothed by the sounds of CBC radio (2!) sifted from the airwaves on cunning antennae fashioned from coathangers — or something like that. Accompanying this was an anxiety closely akin to claustrophobia — the sense that another significant portion of my life had just acquired a giant corporate gatekeeper — that Amazon, or Chapters or Apple or whoever the heck it is, had just inserted itself between me and reading and that the gate would, inevitably, turn out to be a toll-gate. I was suddenly on the outside looking in, denied access and the only remedy was to buy yet another highly-priced gadget, whose constant need to be replaced with the next best thing would burden me with oodles of eco-guilt, while relieving me of a significant amount of cash, and which would also, inevitably, mean that the spinning hamster wheel that is my middle-class existence would have to spin faster, just to allow me to keep doing something I had always done before, with much less bother.
Let me just say that I am not a technophobe — I took to word processing like a duck on fire! I facebook, and blog, I have “embraced the new technology” in my other life as a teacher and still have hopes that the internet will turn out to be a good thing. However, I try not to fall off the other side of the horse either and the attraction/necessity of the e-book has always eluded me. The book represents a perfected form. It does what it needs to do beautifully and simply, anywhere and even when the power is out. Remember the moment you realized that word processing had overshot its peak and was, in fact, devolving? Don’t deny it! That moment when you realized that having to argue with your computer about what it thinks you want to do was not an advance, even if you had paid quite a bit of money for the privilege? I see the e-reader as a similar devolution. The circular irony in the fact that e-reader makers go to such extraordinary lengths to help you pretend that you are reading a “real book” only proves my point.
Oh, yes, yes, I’ve heard the argument about how fast and cheap and convenient it is to be able to download books on demand, etc. etc. — to which I say:
Firstly, just how fast do you read?
Secondly, how much did you pay for that little device? How long, do you think, before its supplier tells you it’s obsolete? What happens when the e-book is your only option and pricing doesn’t reflect a need to demolish a paper-based publishing industry? What would you be willing to pay if it represented your only link to the written word? How much are you spending right now on your phone/internet? (Sorry. Low blow, that.) What about all the stories clogging my Google Reader this week about Apple demanding a 30 percent cut from online e-book sales made through its e-book acquisition app? What could they be up to?
Or, what if, as has been suggested, the business plan is to have cheap content fuel sales of expensive gadgets needed to access the cheap content? (Remember printers and ink cartridges? Sort of the reverse of that.)
Where is your eco-conscience? Perhaps a few trees are being saved, but really, how may trees can you read in a lifetime and haven’t you heard of paper recycling? Are dead trees worse than toxic reclamation dumps in third world countries with poverty-enslaved child workers and oceans filling up with plastic? Just asking. And, if you think that Apple & etc. are only interested in giving you the opportunity to access the world’s literature, in paper-free convenience and at a reasonable price, and why shouldn’t you avail yourselves of the advantages of technology, well, then, my friend, either you’re just not thinking, or you have never owned a cell phone.
What happens when all the publishing houses have followed the bookstores into history, and all writing is e-writing and a few mega corps control the portal? E-writing (in its present incarnation) for a living, as anyone who has ever looked into it knows, is an oxymoronic phrase. If the brave new word can’t keep a writer alive, oh deluded little pawns of the oligarchy, how is it going to support a literature?
Hug a book today — better yet, hug a book publisher. It’s getting cold out there.