June 23, 2011

Kindles are convenient


One of the “most viewed” stories still on today’s Los Angeles Times Opinion webpage was published last Friday, June 17th. “Kindle vs. books: The dead trees society” is its title, most likely chosen by an editor and not “recent Columbia University graduate,” Sara Barbour, whose piece makes no reference to that society. Ms. Barbour’s argument is summed up by the subtitle, although she probably cannot be credited with that line either: “Kindles are convenient, but they just aren’t as good as books.” You may wonder how she knows.

“I’ve never used a Kindle” Ms. Barbour admits, even as she identifies, as a hallmark of its convenience, the e-reader’s undeniable advantage in capacity. The crux of her plaint is the sort of intuition you hear from book partisans all the time: “In eliminating a book’s physical existence, something crucial is lost forever.”

It’s true, of course, that something will be lost, but what that something is and what its value is — whether it’s crucial — has not been convincingly articulated by the people of the book. In the marketplace, it’s a debate that’s already been decided by engineers and programmers, accountants and marketeers, people for whom the elimination of the book will be an unintended consequence of their ingenuity. Ms Barbour’s short list of the ebook’s deficiencies — it “can no longer be scribbled in, hoarded, burned, given or received” — will not persuade Kindle converts (it’s inaccurate, too).

Ms. Barbour devotes some loving attention to the cracked spines and wrinkles of her personal books. Book lovers frequently invoke the haptic pleasures of the printed page, but — pace Norman Mailer — there is no reason why some people should not prefer plastic. Barbour herself errs on the side of realism, recognizing that “the Kindle will eventually carry the day.”

In a piece published yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, according to which the job of saving literature, and the livelihoods of those who create it, has devolved to independent presses (including this one), Elise Blackwell notes that “many writers have turned—whether out of conviction or panic—to one of the versions of self-publishing that proliferate.” This, too, is a consequence — an opportunity — born of digitalization. “Whether or not this is a good idea for writers generally is an unanswered question,” Ms. Blackwell writes, “but it’s clearly not a wise option for any writer hoping to score an academic job interview.”

What she means is that, lacking the imprimatur of a “real” publisher, the author’s self-published book is no longer the credential that it has been taken to be. But this too shall pass. This week’s announcement that Lexington, Kentucky novelist John Locke has sold one million ebooks via Kindle Direct Publishing — self-published ebooks with a cut of the proceeds going to Amazon  — is a harbinger of the evolving paradigm now perturbing all publishers. The faculty hiring committee will soon be reading self-published books.

In the days before every McDonald’s was outfitted with “highchairs,” children who couldn’t quite reach the tabletop were offered a telephone book to sit on. No child will be asked to sit on a Kindle. Nor will you use your Kindle as a coaster for your cold drink. You will no longer approach the attractive stranger on the subway platform and improvise a conversation based on a shared interest in the book she’s reading. Nor will you be able to advertise your intelligence, your curiosity, your hipness, or your conformity with a book of your own. Ebooks can be pirated, but they can’t be shoplifted — the means by which Jean Genet and John Waters and Roberto Bolano assuaged their hunger for books (Sara Barbour stole Fahrenheit 451 from her local library). They can’t be signed by Nelson Algren.

We recently tracked down an often cited piece of recent scholarship claiming that the number of books in a child’s home is correlated to that child’s future academic success.

Once again, I will quote the entire abstract:

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China. Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases, analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data.

—“Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,” by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Treiman in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Volume 28, Issue 2, June 2010, Pages 171-197

Will the import of “growing up in homes with many books” prevail when those books have been rendered invisible — as ones and zeroes?

Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.