Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Kindle swindle

Today on the train in to work, I sat next to a woman who was, like me, reading a book. Only I was reading an honest-to-goodness book with pages made of paper, a hardcover on loan from the library, whereas she was reading on an electronic screen. A Kindle, to be precise. As we sat, both of us reading, I wondered how our experiences differed. Whether her reading felt like mine. It's a question that increasingly interests me, how it is to read a book on one of these electronic devices. More than that, though, I fumed.

Now don't worry. This won't be some Ludditic sputter against the new reading technologies. I did used to be very skeptical about them but I've grown more open to the idea, in fact more and more intrigued by its possibilities. I love books, but I don't love my aching back from always hauling them around, nor the dust they endlessly collect on my shelves, nor the losing battle to find enough space for them. For this and other reasons, I now can see myself using an electronic reading device at some point, even if not exclusively.

Not under capitalism, however, I fear. At present the cost of every one of these gadgets--Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone and Blackberries for which I understand there are now applications for reading--is far beyond my means. Far beyond the means of most wage workers like me, especially in this current economic crisis when most of us, from what I can tell, are doing our best to trim spending. But even once the prices go down, as they probably will over the next few years, using them will still entail outrageous expense and render them unaffordable. This is because you have to not only buy the devise, but buy the books you're going to read on them. All anyone talks about is how great Amazon's $9-per-book-downloaded-onto-Kindle is. I say it's an absolute swindle. Both because of the increased profit margin (at least potentially; I don't know if this is the case during the current several years of start-up phase) now that there is no physical product being multiply manufactured--none of which increased profit, you can be assured, will go to the authors and much of which is derived from publishing-industry consolidation, meaning layoffs. And, most of all, because we're forced to buy the product (from only one source, but that's a slightly side point) rather than permitted to borrow it from the library.

I think I've rhapsodized before here about my love of libraries as well as my admittedly nutty habitual haunting of four to six different ones along my daily grid. I shouldn't need to sell anyone on the importance of public libraries, or of how criminal it is that their funding is continually cut, their hours are impossibly skimpy, their workers poorly paid and treated. With books so outrageously expensive, whether Amazon's Kindle price or the three times that you'll pay in a bookstore, the libraries are more crucial than ever. If anyone doubts that, join me in an excursion to my neighborhood Queens library (if you can manage to get there during the slim window of opportunity when it's open); you'll find it's absolutely jam-packed with people, and you'll wait in a long line for book check-out.

As for me, I rely on libraries for most of my fiction reading. I can't afford to buy many books, period. But in particular with regard to fiction I've found the hard way that I just can't trust reviews, or recommendations, or even my read of the first few pages. I just can't chance the expense on a book I might very well not end up finishing.

So here's what I want when it comes to an electronic reader. I want it to be affordable, by which I mean under $50. And I want to be able to borrow library books onto it for free. After the revolution, the devices themselves will be free, and they'll be better and easier to use, and we won't have to borrow the books from libraries but download them permanently. And the authors, like all artists, will make a decent living doing their art without having to work a day job and .... okay, now I'm lapsing into my own daydream of the creative life under socialism, which couldn't diverge more from today's reality. To which, lunch hour over, I now return.