Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

A Quick Update on What I’m Reading

No time for a full post today. I just wanted to give you a taste for what reviews are upcoming.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s a monster of a book, but it’s for book club, so you can guarantee I’ll finish it. I’m loving it, I really don’t want it to end. Perhaps that’s why it’s taking so long.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. I just began this morning, around 7 am. Now, that may just be too early for all the characters Faulks has running about. Or that feeling of the overabundance of characters may continue even in later hours reading.

Columbine by Dave Cullen. This book is compelling, interesting, well-researched, and a little  horrific. I’ve only finished the first part. The first part takes the position of a bystander, albeit  from many different locations, but one who doesn’t have any inside information. I feel like that is about to change.

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I was an evangelist for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a great read and book club book. And the US cover is to die for. I’m already loving her writing and have figured out that the contemporary character has postpartum depression (not giving anything away). Like in Vanishing Act, she has two stories of women intertwined and separated by about 40 years. I do prefer the young woman in the 50’s rather than the contemporary woman. Alexandra is far more feisty and interesting. Though I fear she won’t be given her due.

*Also, I’ve posted some more links to various book blogs I’ve discovered when I wasn’t motivated to write. So please give them a look. I’ve enjoyed them a lot.

Thoughts on E-books

Having just finished reading a post over at Biblioklept on the changing front of e-books vs. printed media, I felt that I should write something to help me bring all my thoughts on the matter together.

Of course, I have an invested stake in printed books and traditional publishing. It’s my job. If e-books become the norm, I will probably lose my job. There is my bias. However, I also really appreciate technology. I have an iPhone, I am constantly mesmerized and exclaiming when I see or read about a new technological innovation. That being said, there are many things that bothers me about this e-book explosion.

First, as the mentally dexterous folk at Biblioklept noted, the economic consequences of the iPad are extreme. Books are cheap, not as cheap as they used to be, but under $30, usually. And that book is yours forever, to read, write in, share, hoard, do with whatever you like. Or, if owning books isn’t your thing, there is the library, free membership to county residents; one may borrow to one’s content. In either circumstance, it is relatively inexpensive to read. It gives you more per hour entertainment than a movie and costs less, whether you go to the theater or buy it on DVD. Reading is one of the least expensive forms of entertainment ever, which, in some ways, speaks to its continuous presence in our lives.

In recent months, there has been an eruption of e-readers on the market, coupled with price wars for e-books. While the electronic versions of books are cheaper (new book in hardcover retails for $24.99 to $26.99, new book in e-book format $9.99-$14.99) and consumers begin to think that this lower price is what books are actually “worth”, in order to access these “cheaper” versions, one must purchase a device that costs anywhere from $100-$500. While some people are already dropping that cash on books, most people cannot or will not. Requiring that kind of expenditure automatically keeps poorer people from accessing books.  It’s that simple.

Secondary to the economic aspects of this change is the critical response to this new slew of e-readers, that mainly piss me off. I understand hearing from critics on the outside discussing the digitization of books, lauding the technological advances and how this change will make books universally available.  But at the same time, in my trade magazine emails, the same opinion is found, “e-books are the future”, “if you don’t start selling e-books online as a small independent, you’ll be gone before you know it”, and “you have to keep up with the times and sell e-books because they are the future”. I don’t understand why you would want someone to buy something online instead of coming into your store. It is just as easy for them to buy an e-book online at their local independent as it is on Amazon. Sure, one may count on one’s regulars, but people who aren’t…it’s a toss up.

I often wonder if anyone remembers what happened in the music industry ten to fifteen years ago? When music became available digitally, and servers like Napster and Kazaa popped up almost immediately and people started downloading illegally. Then, all the musicians and record labels started condemning it. It still goes on, though it’s a little more difficult to get music for free. This is essentially going on in the book industry as well. Recently, the New York Times wrote that there were 9 million illegal downloads in the closing months of 2009. And instead of taking a moment to think about the consequences of digitizing books, the publishing industry and the authors are praising e-books and e-readers. They are actively promoting the technology that is stealing their money.

Third, and last, I promise, is the idea of worth that I mentioned above. With the recent price wars between Amazon and Macmillan (big ups to Macmillan for sticking it to Amazon), the facts over what books are “worth” has become more and more skewed. Concretely, a book is worth many things. Just a random sampling: the (maybe) advance the author received, the editing and revision process, the printing, the jacket copy and design, the marketing, author tours and events, promotional materials and Advanced Reading Copies, etc. etc.. Abstractly, it is worth more; the time and effort the author and all those other people working on the book put into it. What is that worth? I don’t know, their respective salaries, I suppose. Then there is even a larger question: what are books worth to readers? Some books are worth more than others, a personal example, Virginia Woolf is worth $400 while James Patterson is worth 50 cents, but that certainly isn’t the case for every person. Non-fiction books could be arguably worth more than fiction because they deal with (most of the time) facts and commentary on something that actually happened. But fiction contributes to our imagination and holds our childhood nostalgia delicately, before we knew or cared about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Or a book is worth more when one saves up to purchase it, or does research on it before checking it out in the library. Or a book that has a particular setting and is read within that particular setting and a particularly important time in one’s life. A book’s worth means nothing, and everything at the same time. Since we cannot decide on what books are worth more than others, we must rely on the publishers’ concrete estimations of what a book is worth. (A disclaimer: Publishers are greedy mofo’s. They’d cut any corners to make extra profit, but it’s the closest we’ll come to regulation.)

It is upsetting to have to constantly worry about the ascendency of e-readers when it seems, to me, such an obviously bad idea. I’m not advocating that we stop digitizing books and using e-readers, a kind of climate-change-inducing electric bonfire. I’m only asking that we take a second to ask ourselves what are books worth and why are we so anxious to get rid of a part of our history that has defined our individual and collective consciousness?