It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of technological progress, it was the age of choices, it was the epoch of information, it was the epoch of uncertainty, it was the season of next generations, it was the season of old wisdom up new sleeves…
I’ve recently once again begun to consider purchasing a Kindle (or a Nook from Barnes & Noble). I have gone back and forth on the merits of one ever since first reading about the e-reader concept well over a decade ago. They are now more affordable, the bugs have been worked out of the systems, and more convenient than ever. Yet still I hesitate to pull the trigger and purchase one.
What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects—the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives—is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.
There was a time when mine consisted almost entirely of music. As a student in college, moving back and forth between home and the dorms each year, you could tell what was most important to me by what was stuffed into my ’78 Chevy Malibu. “The Bullet” (so-named because of a bullet hole in the hood of the car) was a four-door that I stuffed door to roof with my possessions twice per year. It’s safe to say that around 40-50% of the space was composed of stereo equipment and crates of compact discs and cassettes. A few books, clothes, baseball gear, a lamp, etc., rounded it out. What I wouldn’t have given for an MP3 player twenty-four years ago!
Mainly, during that time, my bookshelf was a collection of Calvin & Hobbes, Far Side, Bloom County or even Foxtrot, and almost every Stephen King book published to that point. I had a copy of my bible, and a history book or two, but that was it. Should I choose, I could walk over to the shelves and pick up an answer to whatever curiosity crossed my mind at the college library. Along the way to finding it, I’d end up grabbing a few more books that attracted me. From my small hometown library in Schuyler (as well as the elementary and high school libraries) to the much larger library at Doane College, these buildings were a place where I always felt at home.
But eventually I moved on from the dorms and the college library to a series of small apartments. My little library came with me, having grown to include a few more books that were favorites of mine from my courses in history and political science. It was, finally, just me and my bookshelf. At first it wasn’t even a shelf at all, but piles of books scattered around my room on the floor, or collected in old milk crates. The collection I had was a mixed bag, but so much was missing. For now the necessity to work to pay for my food, rent and student loans took precedence.
Modern life is a life where one world constantly gives way to another. If it doesn’t, “consumers”—as people now call themselves—get anxious. We’re familiar with the drill: new audio/video formats arrive every decade; a new “generation” of cell phone every couple years; and, on a rolling basis, there’s the expectation that several totally unexpected paradigm shifts are in the works.
The decline of actual, physical book-publishing has been taking longer than it was supposed to. But the digital offerings of Amazon and Google, along with their ever-better delivery devices, promise that finally the end may be upon us. Complaints about screen-reading aside, it should be obvious to anyone who cares about information that in many respects digital text is a superior technology to the printed page. And this brings me back to the Kindle.
One could phrase the basic demands of a hypothetical bookshelf manifesto like this: for-life, liberation, and the pursuit of diversity. They’re all related. “For-life” means the right to keep one’s books as long as one lives and, just as importantly, to pass them on to one’s descendants. They must not be take-away-able by the fiat of a far-away corporation. They must be in a medium and format that will be readable in a hundred years and, if we know what’s good for us, in five thousand. “Liberation” means that the texts are truly ours to do with as we please, short of harming others. We can lend them to enemies and friends. We can mark them up or damage them. We can move them around wherever we like, and wherever the technology allows, freely organizing and categorizing them to all the limits of our private compulsions. Finally, “the pursuit of diversity” means that there should be no limit on the breadth of our collections. In short, no censorship. These are all things that my shelf of paper and cardboard do quite well and that the most celebrated digital alternatives, so far, do not.
The Amazon Kindle strikes me as a threat to this manifesto: an interface to a proprietary market managed by a profit-motivated outfit that wants to own your memory theater. On July 17, 2009, in an act so bumblingly ironic that even Amazon called its behavior “stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles,” the company removed copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from customers’ Kindles without warning or permission. The editions, it turned out, were illicit. While the company apologized and paid damages to the affected customers after the ensuing outrage, this incident demonstrated the sort of powers Amazon has reserved for itself in the design of this new device. Books (as well as the annotations one makes while reading, which Amazon saves on its servers) are encoded in a proprietary file format, depending utterly on the device and its software in order to be read. No Kindle—and no Amazon to sell you one—no book.
Until companies (including Apple with its iPad) take seriously the needs and the rights of readers they deserve suspicion. Just because the Kindle and iPad might seem to work relatively reliably now, and because Google tells itself “don’t be evil,” we shouldn’t keep from entertaining darker, even Orwellian fantasies. Never before has the technology been so good for totalitarian urges, should they arise. Already, the agreements being worked out between Google and the publishing industry are likely to allow Google to withhold as much as 15% of its scanned, copyrighted archive from the public. It’s unlikely that anyone will bother (or pay) to scan most of those books again. Whoever controls Google Books already controls the future of public knowledge to a very considerable degree.
Far from its pleasantly chaotic beginnings, the internet is now tending toward mass consolidation. Companies are less and less interested in helping us store information ourselves and more and more eager to do it for us. We’re not keeping our email and documents on our computers’ hard drives anymore; Gmail and Google Docs have them on distant servers. Apple wants to follow suit with its subscription-based MobileMe system, pulling more and more of our data into its so-called “cloud.” Facebook has already done so with no less than our friendships.
Picture a library, in flames, overlooking the city in ruins below—the Library of Alexandria under Caesar’s assault all over again. Books by the thousands audibly crinkle as they incinerate, disappearing for all time, never to be read again and, in a generation or two, never to be remembered. They are all irreplaceable; their loss is exactly incalculable. They are now good only to fuel the fire. As bystanders, we’re consumed by horror. We imagine ourselves as the books, the books as ourselves. Everything is lost with them. What if, after Amazon or Google becomes “The Last Library,” a computer virus—or the cataclysmic solar flare that some 2012 “prophets” like to warn about—finds a way of separating us from our databanks?
I won’t outsource my library. I may buy a Kindle or Nook one day for my wife or my children, or even use it myself. But it will be to supplement, not replace, my bookshelf.