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Where are we going next? August 4, 2009

Filed under: Books — Ms.M @ 9:09 am

This is old news for some people, but it does bring up some interesting thoughts for me. The whole story of the Kindle, and what they bring to the literary table, has been something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. It has brought up some new questions about what constitutes a book and about what the rights and privileges are of owning a book, even if it’s no longer a solid object but only the words on a screen.

Actually, when Amazon’s Kindle readers first started to become popular, I flirted with the idea of maybe getting one myself. The only issues that really held me back were two–I didn’t feel I had the disposable income to spend on another gadget that was mostly unnecessary (we do still have free libraries!), and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become part of something that may lead to the end of the printed book (albeit in the far distant future). I’ve grown up with printed books, have collected them like rare jewels, have made them such a part of my life I couldn’t imagine something of a life without them. However, because I am a book junkie, the idea of carrying a library full of books in my purse, on something the size of one book is beyond intriguing– it is mind blowing.  Not to mention the number of trees saved by digital rather than paper printing.

Recently Amazon, and its Kindle, have been in the news for an incident involving Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Ironically enough, Amazon discovered that they were violating certain copyright laws by selling these e-books to their Kindle customers so they decided to remotely erase every copy they had sold of these novels and give customers refunds without any forewarning or other communication until after the fact (they did issue an apology). Of course, the fact that the anything could disappear as easily as it has appeared on a computer screen isn’t particularly strange. Anyone who has worked with computers in any form knows how easy it is to have a document one minute only to find that it’s gone the way of the dodo the next. Also, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing the rare but unfortunate, and heart wrenching, feeling that comes with total hard drive failure sans backup, as in there goes everything I’ve worked on these past couple years…lesson learned! But this recent situation is very different from the one caused by the usual technological malfunctions, or common user error.

This is a case much more complex and interesting. Once someone has purchased an e-book, has it in their possession, so to speak, what or who can decide that it is no longer there’s to have? Should Amazon have the power to remotely erase e-books after purchase? If Amazon had been violating copyright by selling the hard copies of these books, what would they have done? Could they have done anything? What if printed books do become extinct, how much power will e-book publishers have to what people are reading, or can retain, copy, share, etc by power of law? I also wonder about book sharing in general with Kindles. You can’t send a friend a copy of your e-book the way you did with a printed book. How does that change things as well?

These are questions I definitely want to look into, even if I never buy a Kindle or any other e-reader in the near future. After all, it has been fairly straight forward, up to this point, that owners of books are purchasing the book as an object, or the bound printed pages, but that authors retain ownership of the content, ideas, etc., that these binded pages hold. The printed book, and the libraries that hold them, or the book stores that sell them, are offering free access to or purchased access to anyone, who has the ability to read, a multitude of ideas, fictional worlds, and ways of thinking. Publishers, of course, are the sort of invisible gate-keepers to what makes its way into printed form, but once a book is bought or sold, there is very little they can do to censure what people decide to read.  They can’t sell a book one minute, and then send out the book police to snatch it away from those who’ve already bought it. This is the literary world we know, but obviously this has been gradually changing.

I wonder what the literary world will be like in the future for readers, writers, book publishers, libraries, etc? It’s a bit scary, to be honest, that Amazon had the ability to remotely erase any book, let alone books that speak so strongly to the power and fear of censorship, and misguided authority.

It’s frightening to not know where these e-books will go next, how large the market for e-books will grow, and what effect this will have. What if any say will readers have to what they can hold on to in any long-term way. I sit by my library and pick up old books all the time. I read notes I made to myself, and requestion the questions I asked, skimming over passages I’ve read once or many times over. Some people collect books like museum pieces, to collect dust and mark places. I collect books as traveling companions. What would I feel if those were to suddenly dissappear? I think I’d be devestated.

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2 Responses to “Where are we going next?”

  1. Oh, I think we need another car ride to discuss this! Big topic in my class this summer. BIIIIIG topic. I’m pretty much in agreement with everything you said…torn btwn old and new, and I really am upset that Amazon could just take the book away like that.

    But kinda ironic about the titles taken… 😉

  2. Ms.M Says:

    Yes, we must discuss this on our next car ride…I really don’t understand the whole “you’re not buying the book, but the license to read that particular ‘book'” Huh? That sounds so sketch…so your paying for the right to look over something for awhile and can’t really say anything if it suddenly disappears? No comprendo, chica.


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