Friday, September 25, 2009

More e-reader maunderings

This being payday, I took myself out to lunch. While I ate I was reading The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, which I took out of the Queens library yesterday. As I paid the bill the server nodded at the book and said, "How is it, the new Atwood?" Naturally, then, as I walked back to the office I was off upon reveries about books and reading and readers, and it reminded me of an article I read recently (sorry, can't remember where) pointing out yet another shortcoming of e-readers as compared to old-fashioned books. With e-readers no one can see what anyone else is reading. I loved that the waiter asked me about my book. I really really love looking at what my fellow riders are reading every morning and evening on the subway. I've struck up many a conversation -- and I find that people never seem to mind the interruption to their reading -- when I couldn't stop myself from commenting on a neighbor's book. You know, along the lines of, "Oh, I read that, loved it, how are you liking it," and so on. Once paper-and-glue books are obsolete, these conversations will be too.

Now, granted, I've also of late been striking up conversations with e-reader users: "Sorry to interrupt, but if you don't mind my asking, how do you like that Kindle?" But it's not the same query at all, now, is it?

Because I live in Queens and because Queens is the most multinational patch of land on Earth, the books (and newspapers) my fellow #7 riders read are in many languages. I'm surrounded every day by words, news, ideas, poetry, stories in Urdu, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Creole, Spanish, Farsi, Hindi, Tagalog, Croatian and dozens of other tongues. So there's reason #513 why the Kindle, in particular, does not point the way to the future of reading--or if it does, it's a dystopian future of the sort that might fit right into this new Atwood novel I'm reading: not only is it prohibitively expensive, not only does it force you to buy books and buy them from only one source, not only is the list of titles it offers quite limited, but the books are only in English! Ye gods what a backward step it altogether seems to be.

Insert here my usual disclaimers that I am not in principle opposed to the newly developing e-reading technologies. But I've begun thinking more about the various ways these technologies currently exclude most readers; the way they delineate their owner/users as of a higher class than the rest of us slobs shlepping around our archaic leafy content-delivery devices; whether this, the class distinction that e-reader ownership signifies, isn't intrinsic to them, isn't in a certain sense the whole point; and even, then, whether this development, hailed as a reading revolution by the literary elites, isn't actually counterrevolutionary in the class sense, that is, a push back against the egalitarianism of the book, a wedge, an edging of worker-readers outward toward the margins of irrelevance.

As is too often the case, these maunderings are only the tentative and not deeply thought out groping toward some ideas to which who knows whether I'll ever get a chance to devote some lucid attention. There's lots more that needs to be included in the mix for any serious class-conscious consideration of this topic. For one thing, the e-reader manufacturers of course want to broaden the market so it's not as if they want to limit their customer base through price and snob appeal, it's not as if they wouldn't like eventually to sell to everyone across the class divide. It comes down basically to the whole question of technology in class society, its development, its purposes and uses, who's in control of it, who profits, etc. Every commodity, no matter how apparently innocent or potentially beneficial, is tainted by capitalism. Every thing is produced for profit. On the flip side, in a classless society, everything might be made: every thing that might be of worth based on all sorts of criteria involving the common good. Which I'm guessing would mean much less stuff, but it would be fun to give some thought to what this might lead to in the way of reading. After the revolution, what combination of old and new technologies will the workers forge to enhance the reading experience and at the same time save the planet?