You are getting nerdy…

Ebooks: The End of Civilised Reading

According to this very clear and entirely unbiased article, we are on the verge of a cultural holocaust.  As the electronic book gains in popularity, the traditional paper book will be inexorably wiped out of existence, taking all the value of human achievement with it and leaving our society drained of all meaning.  We will live in a media reich in which all culture will be scrubbed soulless and trapped in the plastic shell of electronic delivery.  Already, devotees of print media are looked down upon as social anachronisms, clinging to a destructive and worthless medium!

Did that sound a little crazy?  Maybe more than a little.

If Alan Kaufman is to be believed, the rise of the ebook is equivalent to Nazi Germany, Christian expansion and 9/11 all rolled into one.  I assume his article was intended to convince readers to spurn the ebook and hold fast to the holy grail of printed paper.  It succeeded, in my case, at convincing me that even the most banal of subjects can be made outrageous by someone whose grasp of reality is best described as “neglected”.  But no amount of apocalyptic wording or comparisons to cultural upheavals and human atrocity will alter the inherent flaws in the article.

From the first, Kaufman makes entirely baseless assumptions.  Yes, numerous small bookstores have closed down in recent years.  That is difficult to credibly deny.  Kaufman’s association of this phenomenon with the development of the ebook is not so irrefutable.  Small bookstores are closing because of big bookstores.  Amazon.com certainly contributes to this, but the vast majority of their book sales are still in printed form.  Frankly, ebooks have barely begun to catch on, and are nowhere near the ubiquity needed to have a drastic impact on the book market.

The article goes on to make its connection between ebooks and Hitler by calling print media “the despised Jew of our culture”.  That’s certainly a compelling bit of phraseology there, but can Kaufman back it up?  I don’t know if he believes he can, because he seems content to let his alarmist proclamations speak for themselves.  Whatever he believes, the reality is that he’s pulling this idea out of his ass.  Books are not a cultural outcast, at least not in the sense to which Kaufman is referring.  Certainly, there is a small subculture of early Kindle devotees who believe that print media should immediately be supplanted and fade into history.  To keep the Godwin theme going, there is also a small subculture of people who believe Hitler was right.  I will concede that these groups do have one thing in common: they do not represent society in any significant way.

There are times when I feel the art of the book is threatened on a cultural level.  This feeling is brought on not by new technology, but by a cultural trend that, as a bookseller, I can’t help noticing on a daily basis.  We live in a society that does not value its literacy.  In this, our enlightened first world, there are people who disdain reading as an unpleasant chore to be completed only when necessary.  Note, this disdain is directed not at the printed page, but at the act of reading itself.  I could rant for hours about this particular problem, but that’s a post for another day.  The point here is that where Kaufman sees a cultural aversion to books and blames the ebook, I see the same and attribute it to a much deeper problem of anti-intellectualism in popular culture.

Kaufman goes on to blame the market for the supposed downfall of the book, claiming that the more people buy ebooks, the fewer people buy print books.  That much is true.  As more people purchase ebooks, sales of printed material will likely decline.  And I agree that this will eventually happen.  I don’t see it happening in the next ten years, however, and there is certainly no noticeable sign of it now.  He is correct that publishers see books as a profit-venue first and artistic expression second if at all.  This explains why Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are bestsellers while some of the best writers you’ll ever read labour on in obscurity.  Selling to the lowest common denominator is a surefire way to maximise profit.  When the lowest common denominator accepts the Kindle, I can see some sort of visible shift occurring.  That hasn’t happened yet, and I doubt it will happen soon.  The human mob has always been resistant to change.

A summary of the paragraphs above: Small bookstores are closing because they cannot compete with larger businesses, not because electronic books are impacting book sales.  Literature has fallen to the fringe of pop culture because people would rather watch TV than read, not because ebooks are forcing paper into obsolescence.  Publishers are in it to make money, which results in truly terrible but marketable books getting more love than good books that won’t reach a large demographic, but has no impact on the print vs. electronic argument.

Now that we’ve clarified the ways in which Mr. Kaufman is wrong, I would like to take a moment to explain why this article bothers me.  Clearly, the writer has a problem with ebooks.  Based on his choice of wording, I would say he has a monumental problem with them.  As one nears the end of his article, it becomes clear that the agenda is personal.  He considers printed books to be “sacred”, and integral to culture.  According to Kaufman, as soon as books are transferred to an electronic medium, they lose all cultural value.  Therein lies one of my two problems.

What is so important about paper?  At the moment, I would rather buy a printed book than read an ebook, but that’s because I find reading off of a computer screen uncomfortable, and am uninterested in spending however many hundred dollars it would take to buy an ebook reader.  The problem with ebooks right now is one of practicality and convenience, not of morality.  If a book is read electronically instead of on a page, is the content affected in any way?  No.  You might not enjoy reading ebooks, but don’t use the content to excuse your disdain for the medium.  It is naive at best and deceitful at worst.

The other, more obvious problem with the article is the repeated use of alarmist comparisons, to fascism, terrorism and unpopular history, to inflate the perceived problem.  I cannot, with a straight face, compare ebooks to the Third Reich.  To call this embryonic technological movement “a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions” is ridiculous to the point of absurdity, and I find it insulting that the writer apparently thinks we will simply accept these statements and be appropriately terrified.  Far worse is the realisation that, somewhere on the internet, there are readers impressionable enough to believe Kaufman’s claims without seeking to verify them.  Even if we are not all foolish enough to jump on this particular alarmist bandwagon, someone will be, and Kaufman seems content to exploit that credulity if it means people will agree with his narrow and poinless ideal.

So, Alan Kaufman, you are at best either an idiot or a self-important jackass who would manipulate the gullible and small minded to gain a following.  At worst, you are both.  If asked for my opinion, I would suggest the latter.


October 20, 2009 - Posted by | Books, Rant, Technology | , , , ,


  1. I think my main concerns surrounding eBooks would be in regards to DRM. I like giving away or lending books when I’m finished with them and I can’t imagine the publishing industry going down a different route. And giving someone an electronic copy of a book won’t be quite the same.

    Interestingly, according to this fellow, every study that’s been done has concluding that technology, the Internet and even texting are making kids better writers and more literate than in the past.

    Comment by Dana | October 20, 2009 | Reply

  2. We should not even be taking what Kaufman wrote seriously. He was serious, however. But his use of the loaded words Holocaust etc referring to the Jews in wartime Europe and Nazi Germany, I believe we must forgive this chap and just ignore his words, because, if you know his bio, he is the son of Holocaust survivors who grew up in a dysfunctional family in NYC and his entire life has been this kind of angry activist screaming, and of course, with this insane essay, he has really gone too far. Just ignore him. He could have written the same essay without the allusions to Jews and the Holocaust and made a better article. Sadly, he erred on the side of emotionalism and over-writing. Let him be. The digital revolution cannot be stopped. We all know that.

    Comment by Danny Bloom | October 29, 2009 | Reply

    • While the “digital revolution” is inevitable in its way, I must offer the opinion that it’ll be a good while before we see a significant change on this particular front. Good old fashioned books have years of life left in them.

      Comment by Zenbomb | October 29, 2009 | Reply

  3. re ”While the “digital revolution” is inevitable in its way, I must offer the opinion that it’ll be a good while before we see a significant change on this particular front. Good old fashioned books have years of life left in them.”

    I do agree. YEARS AND YEARS.

    zenbomb, since i got you here online, wonder if you might be interested one day in blogging on this cockamamie idea of mine , pro or con, and offer your feedback, again pro and con? See my blog at http://zippy1300.blogspot.com and this:

    I know and realize I am crawling a bit into the lion’s den here, but I was not named Daniel for nothing (smile) …. but here’s my question to everyone here, pro and con and in between.

    I feel that reading on paper is so different, both emotionally and mentally, from reading on a screen, and not a priori better or worse, just different, that at some point — like today, like in ten years, whenever — we (the culture) might benefit from creating a new word or term for “reading on a screen”. I have been crusading for this for the past 6 months, with lots of ups and down, lots of pros and con, lots of good discussions, lots of emails from top experts in the field, both pro and con, and here are some “news” links. Of course, the mainstream media still has not reported on my crusade, and I fear they never will, but the bloggysphere has lit up from time to time on this, and it’s been both fun and educational for me. Please weigh in with your thoughts here, pro or con, after reading the background info below. The two words I am thinking of now, for reading on screens, are screening or screading. One NYTimes reporter suggested diging, for digital reading.

    My guess is IF we really do need a new word, and if such a new word could be useful and beneficial for scholars and neuroscientists studying these issues, and for the rest of us, too, then the new word will happen organically and naturally, and NOT because one person or one editor coined a word or new term. It might take ten more years for this word to come to us, out of the blue, a completely surprising new word, and also IT MIGHT NEVER HAPPEN. Reading IS reading, and we might not need a new word for this new kind of reading we do on screens. I feel, however, and this is now my life’s work (since I am semi-retired and working for myself now, age 60), that new word or term will be useful and beneficial. What’s YOUR take on all this, pro or con, and if you are interested in playing this game, what word or term might YOU suggest for reading on screens.




    Comment by Danny Bloom | October 29, 2009 | Reply

    • You said it yourself: reading is reading. We haven’t come up with unique, single-word terminologies for differentiating between reading books, magazines, newspapers or internet articles. I find it unlikely that e-readers will so revolutionise the medium that they will need their own word. It’s still reading, regardless of how the words reach your eyes.

      Comment by Zenbomb | October 30, 2009 | Reply

      • Zenbomb,
        Just to explain more: we don’t need the word for the general reader, we need the new word for scholars and neuroscientists studying these issues, so they can report back and say that READING on paper does such and such to the brain scan MRI tests, while READING ON SCREENS (or screening or e-reading or screading, and other terms being created right now!) does OTHER things to the brain, not a priori better or worse, just different.

        A friend tells me: “I’d say that reading on a screen *can* be qualititatively different than
        reading as we have understood it, but does not necessarily have to be. I’ve
        read narrative book-like material almost exclusively on screens for ten
        years and I am seldom distracted by links. I focus on the text, particularly
        with ebooks. But I know what you mean; different experiences are certainly
        possible and are becoming widespread and it is something different than what
        we have always called “reading” when you use a basic text more as a jumping
        off point than as a narrative.”

        And another friend in OZ tells me re same issue:

        RE: ”Do we need a new word for reading on screens?”

        Dear Danny
        “I think it more likely that, seeing as in the future we probably will read more often from a screen than from paper surfaces of books or newspapers or magazines…probably what will happen is that some word or term will evolve to encompass the action rather than the action evolving a new word, and a retronym will arise for its superceded equivalent (think “acoustic guitar” or “film camera”). …..Thus, reading will still be “reading”, but reading a paper book may be…oh, I don’t know, but likely as simple as the examples given…something like “pbook reading” or “paper reading”. …….I guess we can hypothesize about future words, but I suspect we’ll no more control or even steer it than we do most developments and evolutions and contributions to language – it just happens. doesn’t it?”

        Comment by Danny Bloom | October 30, 2009

  4. (from the article you write about) books have become simply another vehicle, along with the Washing Machine and the iPod, for generating capital.

    Excuse me? What kind of frothing-at-the-mouth Luddite do you have to be to hate washing machines?

    Answer: a Luddite who does not do his own laundry. Maybe that should change.

    Comment by Cat Faber | October 29, 2009 | Reply

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