Saturday, October 23, 2010
Confessions of a defector
For the second year in a row, I celebrated my 75th birthday at the Wordstock Festival. If you have to work on your solar return, Wordstock’s a grand place to do it: a swirling, teeming whirl of book lovers, exhibitors, publishers, book purveyors and of course authors.
Ironic indeed, therefore, that I came home on Sunday evening, exhausted but proud, to gifts that included a brand new ….. wait for it ……………. Kindle.
Yeah, a Kindle. You know, Amazon’s “wireless reading device,” the one whose advent of recent years was widely heralded as the death knell for books and bookstores both. And I got not just any Kindle, but the new improved model: smaller, lighter, faster and greyer than its ancestors, with free wifi and 3G built into it, making it reputedly of use where in the wide world.
With all the zealotry of a convert, immediately I popped for a sleek black leather cover for the device that actually has a night light built into its spine — an ingenious, marriage-saving innovation.
First downloads: Atwood’s latest, The Year of the Flood; Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs; and Between the Acts, Woolf’s brilliant and underrated novel that it’s time I revisited.
But the irony is not lost on me: I came straight from a festival where a constant topic of conversation concerned what happens to hardcover books in the digital age, and I gleefully launched into downloading virtual books.
The issues surrounding Kindles and their kin are legion. Most obviously: if you can already get many books steeply discounted by shopping at Amazon, and then the Kindle download costs close to half of that, who is making money anymore? If you guess it’s not the authors, you would be correct. One commentator has called digitalization of extant texts “the greatest act of piracy since Francis Drake sailed the Spanish Main.” But old or new, everyone takes a hit, from publisher to vendor.
One apparent winner in the digital death match (apart from the makers of e-book readers) is the consumer, who gets more for less. And therein lies the hope of the whole endeavor. If people can instantly gratify their impulses to get and read a certain book or newspaper or magazine, perhaps they will do it more often, and ultimately spend more money.
Sounds good. But then what happens to bookstores, which need to hold onto a vast inventory to be of any use? For that matter, what happens to festivals like Wordstock or the Brooklyn Book Festival, events that lure noteworthy authors with the promise of selling a lot of books?
Naturally enough, the answer is that they will have to gradually reinvent themselves and create new or augmented reasons for being. For instance, it’s great that I can start reading The Year of the Flood this instant. But nothing compares to trotting down to the Schnitz, as I did last month, to hear her and Ursula K. Le Guin chat about writing. And I will certainly have read Armistead Maupin’s new book Mary Ann in Autumn by the time he arrives at Powell’s (on November 12) -- only if I read on the Kindle, what will I give him to sign?
Anyway. There is a groundswell of thinking about the rights of everybody involved (see this, for example) — so much so that I’m tempted to go to law school (not really) just so I can part of hashing it all out. But as my own behavior attests, the genie is out of the bottle; one day books in print may be yet another artifact we refer to nostalgically as “sooooooo 20th century.”
Actually there are downsides for readers in this as well as upsides for writers -- but that’s another post. To be continued...