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 | , , , , | 8 Comments