Thursday, January 28, 2010

My e-reading evolution

I've been thinking again lately about the whole issue of reading books on electronic devices. After yesterday's rollout of Apple's newest profit-making device, the iPad, today seems a good time to revisit the issue.

I've posted several times about my mixed feelings. Love books. Sentimental attachment to same. Etc. Etc. On the other hand, hate the headaches and neckaches, the heavy backpack weighing me down, the lugging, the loaning and losing. I have no innate or principled resistance to new reading technology. I've never held a Sony Reader or Kindle in my hand and read on one, so I don't know if I'd like the experience, but I'm open to it, no, intrigued, and I can certainly see many advantages. Not least, as Andrew pointed out to me recently, that e-readers could make books more accessible for people with certain physical disabilities.

As far as I can see, though, that last is, for the moment, the only way any of these machines might in any way be a democratizing force in reading. I've been seeing that word, "democratizing," all over the Web today in various commentaries about the iPad, and I'm like, "What?" A new technology that costs $499 to $829 plus a monthly carrying fee plus forces you to buy any book you'd like to read--this is democracy? Am I missing something? Or is this just another case of all these hardware-happy middle-class folks who can afford to hop out and pick up this latest toy seeking to ascribe some progressive social function to it that it does not possess?

The purpose of these commodities is simple: profit. In the case of the iPad, unlike the Kindle, the manufacturer seems to have worked out a deal to bring the content publishers along for the moneytaking ride, so everybody's happy. Everybody who'll profit and everybody who can afford to spend that kind of money. Which leaves the rest of us, the majority of folks who live paycheck to paycheck at best, left behind. Which is natural, these being capitalist commodities and the goal of profit being inconsistent with any interest of the working class.

My bottom line doesn't change. How could it when my material conditions don't? (1) Yes, I'd love to try out an e-reading device. (2) If I liked it I'd love to possess one. (3) That can't happen unless the prices come down, way way way down, and don't include any monthly fees. (4) I don't want to be forced to buy books, whether from one store as with Amazon's Kindle or from various sellers--I want to take out library books for free, as I always have, and read them electronically.

Until we get to a place where all these requirements are met, it seems to me that the development of e-reading technology will continue in the direction it's currently headed, that is exactly the opposite of democratizing reading, rather creating a greater and greater divide between a class of haves who can afford e-reading and the have-nots who are left behind. It's not that different than what's happened with the iPhone, Blackberry and the like. Comfortable folks who can afford to buy one and pay the monthly rates all have them and all their friends have them and they think everyone has them and everyone is online all the time like they are. In fact, as several surveys have confirmed, the great majority--something like 95%--of cell phone users continue to buy plain cell phones that they use just for calls and texts because that's all we can afford. (Okay, and for some of us because who the hell wants to be online all the time even if we could afford it?)

This post's heading implies I'm evolving, and I am, really. I've moved much farther toward envisioning myself using an e-reader--in fact, I'm almost at the point of starting to yearn for one. Which is a bad thing, since the prices show no sign of dropping any time soon. However, there is one very hopeful development. Users of the Sony Reader can now read books on the device for free, library books. Yay! Hooray! I shouldn't really be cheering, because I still can't afford a Sony Reader, but at least now the platform is in place. Should the hardware ever be accessible to the masses, the masses will now have the software enabling them to read library books on the e-reader.

I'll probably return to this topic soon. Till then, let me recommend a new blog whose entire focus is all this stuff, the intersection between reading and technology. It's Literature and the Web. Novelist Meredith Sue Willis's new project, it just debuted this week and already there's much to chew on including a lively comments section.