When e-readers first became reality, my younger cousins assumed I was going to be like Jean-Luc Picard and be all mortified that my precious paper tomes might disappear. And I admit that I miss the days of sitting cross-legged among stacks of musty books in a used bookstore, stumbling on some delicate treasure that only I can appreciate, and for fifty-cents, too. But those days are gone already. Even the used bookstores are organized and have catalogues and databases and barcodes. And although I appreciate my own old books, with their hard covers, crinkly pages, and unique smell and feel, I was not mortified at the prospect of e-books. Instead, I became very excited about the possibilities.
I did not see the advent of e-readers as the beginning of the demise of bookstores or books. On the contrary, I saw it as the way bookstores could carry millions, instead of hundreds of titles. I saw it as the way many, many more books could find their way into many, many more hands.
I imagined walking into a bookstore and buying a gadget for $20 or $30 that had all the works of Mark Twain on it, or any of the great authors. I expected to pay more for the contemporary writers, maybe $20 or so for a Stephen King title, or a little more for two or three of his older books, on a handheld gadget that was battery or even solar operated that I could throw in my bag and take anywhere. I imagined being on vacation and having a handful of gadgets that held scores of titles among them. I imagined buying them as gifts around the holidays. I saw shelves with lots of these gadgets all stacked neatly next to paper books. I saw my own book collection stop taking up so much room. Imagine having the space for the Oxford English Dictionary UNabridged? I guess I was hallucinating.
And, oh, how thrilled to think that I could make my own selections!!! I could choose my favorite Hans Christian Andersen tales and mix them up with my favorite Grimm’s Fairy Tales and throw a new feminist fairy tale or two into the mix. What a gift it would make. The Beth David gift collection for toddlers, for pre-teens, for….everyone.
That was my idea of the modern bookstore. Why not? If we can make a calculator for $1.99, why not? If we can create a jump drive that’s an inch long and has a capacity of eight gigabytes, why not?
So, what happened? We have enormously expensive gadgets and no practical way to share books anymore. Instead of $20 for a book, we pay $4.99, but we are forced by greedy companies to put it on a gadget that costs hundreds of dollars. And we have to be connected in order to do so, which means more money to yet another company.
Not only do we have to pay much, much more than necessary for something that simply needs to display words on a screen, but we can’t share anymore. And, worse yet, we have to buy the books from some unseen entity that keeps track of our purchases. Yes, they keep track, it’s good business for them to keep track. Not only does the company that sold you the gadget know what you bought and if you reading it, but the place you bought the title from knows, and that means Uncle Sam can know, too. Can you say “Big Brother”?
My dream world where my youngest cousins can’t rip the pages because there are no pages to rip has not materialized. My fantasy bookstore that has rows and rows of electronic books on display is in my mind only.
Humans are separated from apes and other animals by a handful of very distinct attributes; our ability to communicate through the written word surely ranks among the most important. Giving the gift of a well-written book, sharing the words of an author with your friend, sitting in a corner with a satisfying tale of love or betrayal, fantasy or actual events, are all things we should be able to do without some unseen entity butting its nose in.
If our precious NSA wants to know what we are reading, it should have to send a human to the bookstore to watch us buy a book or a gadget. We should not be forced to put all our titles into some database that we have no control over. If we want to, so that we can save a buck or two, fine, that’s our choice. But the way it’s set up now, we have no choice. We have to buy the expensive gadget, pay to be connected, pay to download a title. And forget about sharing it with a friend when you’re done, because who in her right mind would hand over a $400 gadget to let someone read a book?
Where are the bright minds of our time to do this thing? It hardly seems complicated. What’s taking so long? I have Christmas gifts to buy.