American Culture

Kindles, books and libraries

OK, so I got a Kindle. This is a major step, for someone who is as much of a book junkie as I am. Actually, more like a book magnet. And after decades of buying books, they add up. Especially since I’m a packrat, as Mrs W never tires of pointing out, and living in a flat with limited space, it leads to books three deep in the bookshelves, that sort of thing. Of course, there’s the occasional cull, but that just clears out space for a while that fills up again. Then there’s the feeling that while I’m not likely to read any Dan Brown ever again—once was enough—there’s still no reason to believe that a single tree should ever be sacrificed for a Dan Brown book, as Mrs W once commented. Elitist, I know, but there it is.

So I thought about this for a while, and a couple of years ago we borrowed one for a long weekend from the son-in-law, and Mrs W really liked it, but that was in the US, and for a while there the availability of titles in the UK was pretty sparse. But it’s catching up as various copyright and publishing issues get squared away. And it’s also the case, and this was a help in making the decision, that there’s some stuff being republished only in e-book format, particularly a lot of science fiction that isn’t betting republished in book format.

So how is it? Well, it takes a bit of getting used to. But it’s fit for purpose, as they say. The screen is fine, although I haven’t used it outside yet. It’s comfortable to hold in one hand, which is critical for me since I do most of my reading while on the Tube, which occasionally can be crowded. And one of the reasons I got it is so I can read big fat books, which I like to do, but you can’t really do that while standing in a crowded and swaying train. The little button that you use to do the Kindle equivalent of turning the page isn’t positioned as well as it might be—but maybe that’s intentional, so that you don’t use it be accident too often. On this point, I have to say it was a bit weird at first not having page numbers. What it does instead is give you a % of how much of the book that you’ve read. That’s weird at first, but you get used to that too. I haven’t tried anything will illustrations yet, but will have to eventually. I gather they’re getting better. But anything where you want the colour of the illustrations, like art books, I can’t see the sense of getting it on Kindle until the technology has gone through a couple more transformations that gets us to the book in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Or until I get an Ipad, whichever comes first.

It’s not a book, though. I’m getting used to it, but it’s still not a book. It doesn’t have that feel of a book in your hand, especially a soft paperback. You can’t riffle its pages to find your place. Or make that riffling noise. It doesn’t have that new book smell. It doesn’t have a cover that you can stare at idly, wondering what it has to do with what you‘re reading. You can’t really stick it in your back pocket—it’s too big. Not that there are many paperbacks these days you can do that with, but still. I’m a little be less cavalier with it than I might be with a book—it’s an expensive piece of electronica, after all.

But it’s a good way to read books anyway. And I’ve loaded it up. Well, put a couple of things on it is probably a more accurate statement. The actual reason I got it so that I could read the George R.R. Martin Game of Thrones series, and they’re all big and fat. I still have memories of trying to read the Dorothy Dunnett Niccola series on the Tube, and it sort of worked, but only sort of—mainly, if I got a seat. And I’ve read the first two, and then took a break. The Martins were fine, and I will get back to them—but they’re not Fevre Dream. I’m not a big fan of swash and buckle fantasy anyway, or anything past Lord Dunsany in the genre, but Martin is a fine writer, and I do want to get back to it. But to vary the pace, since I don’t want the Kindle to imprint on any one kind of book, I just finished Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which, yes, is every bit as good as people say it is. Jeez, she’s only 25.

But the real fun is grazing the Kindle site on Amazon. Boy, it’s weird. It’s great for anything no longer under copyright. I’ve already loaded up the Kalevala, and some Anglo-Saxon poetry. And you can get the complete Shakespeare, free. In fact, you can get all sorts of free stuff. The Bible, of course, the RSV—but for a pound something, I can get the King James version with Gustave Dore illustrations. HP Lovecraft. Poe. Henry James. Greek Plays. George Eliot. Melville, both Moby Dick and Bartleby. All free. There’s this fantastic range of great literature that’s there, just download it and you can carry it around forever, or until you’ve read it and decided you’re not going to read again. I’ve always thought of the internet as the world’s largest library, but this takes it a step further-you now have unlimited borrowing privileges for most of the world’s great literature if you get one of these babies. If you think of the internet as one large external hard drive, this is one of the portals you want access to.

It’s the modern stuff that’s all over the place. I imagine every word Dan Brown ever wrote is there. But the other stuff—the less well read these days is how I would put it. And it’s completely inconsistent. This may be because all of this is still unfolding, and in ten years the Kindle landscape will look completely different than it does now. But right now, you can’t find any Lawrence Durrell on Kindle in the UK. Or Joyce Cary. If you want some Henry Miller, you can find some of the more notorious fiction, but none of the excellent non-fiction and essays. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but that’s it—none of the excellent fiction. Several books by George Steiner, but not a single one by William H. Gass. One book by Howard Norman—and it’s a German translation. I can find some Wendell Berry—more than I expected, in fact, something I’m sure he would find deeply ironic—but I find more books about Berry than by him. And some of Gary Nabhan’s recent stuff on food—but none of his earlier stuff about the desert. Astonishingly, though, I can get Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers as an ebook. So The Death of Virgil shouldn’t be too far behind, I imagine.

As far as genre fiction goes, if I look up some of my favorite writers, again it’s all over the place. Lots of Jeff Vandermeer, and Gwyneth Jones, a fair selection of Ian Macdonald’s more recent stuff, but not the earlier stuff, and lots of Ursula Le Guin. But practically no Ken Macleaod, and only one novel by Nancy Kress. That’s in the UK, though—if I look up Nancy Kress on the US Amazon, there are many more ebook novels there. So some of this scarcity here might just be that things haven’t moved over here yet, because of publisher complications, or whatever. Although I also notice that if I look up Howard Norman in the US, there’s that German translation I mentioned earlier—and one other novel.

Of course, if you’re going to read it again, why would you get it on Kindle? This is a question for those of us who keep buying books. Which I will continue to do. But here we get to another thing about the Kindle, or ebooks in general—the fact that there’s stuff that’s being reissued in ebook format that isn’t being reissued as books. This is already happening in the SF world. I loaded up two books by Ian Hocking that have been reissued as ebooks, and the reason I did it is that it‘s unlikely that they’re going to get reissued in book form any time soon, if ever. If I look up Jeff Vandermeer’s stuff on Kindle, there’s a whole boatload of it, including some things I’m pretty sure are not available in book format. And there’s also the fact that what goes into ebook format isn’t constrained by length, in either direction. So I can find some Nancy Kress novellas, and even short stories, available for pennies. Or pence. This is great. It turns out there’s all this shorter stuff—novellas, mini-collections of stories—that Kindle is ideal for. They’re too short to publish as books, but as bits floating through the ether, it works out just fine.

So as far as I can tell, the book industry is handling the Kindle a whole lot better than the music industry handled the internet (which is not hard, given how insanely stupid the music industry has been). For one thing, they know that there are all sorts of books that they’ll keep publishing that are just not suitable for Kindles. Anything with lots of illustrations, like art books, or anything like the marvelous books that Barbara Hodgson puts out, where the assembled illustrations are an integral part of the book. Not that these are big sellers, but there’s a steady demand, which may be enough. There are a number of implications for book publishing here, as well as libraries. But I don’t think the Kindle is necessarily a threat to either—or any bigger threat than the internet has already proved to be.

Certainly the industry has had to get used to the concept of electronic reading, but it’s had the internet to help it along for the past two decades. The number of books being sold in the UK and the US has held pretty steady over the past decade, in fact. Between 2000 and 2010, according to the UK Booksellers Association, published book sales rose from about £2.51 billion to £3.1 billion. This includes a really big export number, and if you back that out, it’s still a positive trend: from £1.658 billion in 2000 to £1.86bn in 2010. This is a bit misleading, though—if you look at consumer spending on books in the UK, it looks flat for the past decade—although again that’s a bit misleading, since the figure rose from £2.183 billion in 2003 to £2.469 billion in 2007, and has been dropping since then (data from The Publishers Association). Here’s the odd thing, though—the number of books published continues to go up–in fact, I haven’t seen the data for 2010, but 2009 was a record year for the number of titles published. And, apparently, volumes too. There are some complicating factors here, though—Harry Potter sales, for one thing. Plus the fact that the data cited here doesn’t capture sales from small publishers—in fact, only about 70% of UK book sales are accounted for in the above figures, apparently. All in all, it doesn’t sound as if book publishing is in much danger at the moment.

But still, the landscape is starting to look different. What has changed? Well, for one thing, the role of the bookseller. Book stores, in spite of my best efforts, are going out of business at an accelerating pace, sadly. This presumably is not unrelated to the fact that digital book sales are the most rapidly growing part of the market, and now account for 6% of total sales in the UK. This certainly looks set to rise, according to the Publishers Association. Another contributing factor as well, surely, is the rise in audiobook sales for the iPhone in both the UK and the US. But this percentage also looks low, especially in light of the fact that ebook sales at Amazon have passed paperback sales, at least here in the UK.There are apparently more book apps than game apps for iphones.

So this is still evolving, and rapidly, and, as is often the case, in some unexpected directions. Hovering over all of this is Google Books, which has been the subject of discussion for several years now since they started their project of trying to digitize every book in existence. Robert Darnton has followed all of this over at The New York Review of Books for some time, and a collection of his essays on this subject came out in 2009 year with the snappy title The Case for Books–available as an ebook, of course. Darnton’s argument is simple—there is a digital revolution going on, but books will always be with us. But books and libraries may never be the same, and in the case of libraries, maybe they shouldn’t be. We’ll consider this further in the next post.

3 replies »

  1. Like you, I thought long and hard … but succumbed. I bought my Kindle a few months ago. I felt … well … traitorish. But there’s nothing like it for the long wait in the doctor’s office. Or propping it up (the case has a kickstand) in a diner over breakfast. And it works just fine outside in the bright sun.

    Still … the ghost of Gutenberg is likely to come for me in anger — even though a project put that public domain free stuff online bears his name.

    Read on happily, Mr. W.

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