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E-books: A threat to democracy?

When Amazon originally released the Kindle in 2007, its appearance (and price) was much different than today’s model. It was clunky. The first Kindle looked and operated more like a fun prototype, and less like a serious reading device. Over the past few years, however, the device (and its competitors, like the Nook from Barnes and Noble) has seen numerous updates that have reduced its size and increased its popularity, among other things. This is due in part to dramatic price decreases.

Last January, Amazon announced that e-book sales have, for the first time, trumped paperback sales. Whether used for travel or school, carrying around one device — like a Kindle or Nook — is much easier and lighter than most folks’ required “real” book load. Simply put, people like the convenience of e-readers.

But not everyone is so keen on this new reading technology.

“Real” book purists like a heavy backpack. For the ardent lover of paper books, the holistic experience of reading— highlighting text, writing in the margins, smelling the pages and turning them by hand — is indispensable.

The simple conclusion is that either someone likes the convenience of e-readers or one revels in the comfort and tradition of a paperback. Yet according to author Jonathan Franzen, it is not that straightforward.

Franzen made headlines a couple weeks ago by saying e-books are damaging society. For him, the planned obsolescence of e-readers goes against the core experience and permanence of a book. Once you buy a paperback book, you can spill coffee on it, highlight text and all of that will still be there decades later. The book is yours. It is an object that, despite increasing technology elsewhere, is steadfast.

“Everything else in your life is fluid,” Franzen said, “but here is this text that doesn’t change.”

According to Franzen, this sense of permanence of the book is in jeopardy because of a capitalist class that is duping readers, convincing them that by purchasing the latest device their reading experience will be better; it will somehow be enhanced by new technology.

Referring to paperback books, Franzen says “it’s a pretty good technology… It will work great ten years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model.”

And he has a point.

There have been several Kindle re-releases since 2007, and every year the main tagline is that the device almost looks like actual paper. And consumers can’t help but think about how great the device is, how they need to purchase it, because, hey, it actually does (well, sort of) look like real paper! Here is how the public gets duped into believing they need the latest product.

For Franzen, this “creates a world that is out of control.” What’s more, he believes serious readers will see through this, noting that e-books are not simply a preference but a threat to democracy.

I’m inclined to agree with Franzen. Even though I own a Kindle (and, ironically, read Franzen’s “Freedom” on the device), I think his argument against e-book technology is the best one yet.

Sure, reading is about reading. And that is what e-book lovers will keep reminding you. But it is also about a sense of permanence, as Franzen notes. Owning a book, this heavy hunk of paper, is something that is yours, not something that requires you to go through another device.

The permanence of paper (and its papery appearance) will always outdo technology that attempts to imitate it.

One Comment

  1. Jan-Adrian Jan-Adrian February 10, 2012

    Great article Matt, I would have liked to read more about just how ebook technology threatens democracy though- besides the fact that books get dirty and kindles may not. And haven’t people been duped into buying the latest devices since they started appearing? I don’t see how this one might spell the end for democracy. Expensive, space-consuming, heavy books maybe, but not a system of government. Other than that, I really enjoyed your style. We haven’t chatted in a while, hope you are well!

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