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Charging Your Books

March, 2008
By John Huckans

A few years from now when you buy a book from Amazon and put it on your credit card, you might have to remember to keep charging it. The “Kindle”, the brainchild of Jeff Bezos and Amazon, is the latest must-have electronic reading gadget that's supposed to replace the book. From what I've read, it fits comfortably in the hand, is book-sized (8vo), presents familiar type-faces, and attempts to simulate the normal reading experience. It will also allow readers to increase font size – a feature that should make it appealing for some people. Title downloads will cost $9.99, books available in paperback or part of the public domain considerably less. What's more the Kindle will be able to store a small library of several hundred books.

In a generally favorable review in the November 26, 2007 issue of Newsweek, Steven Levy writes:

Another possible change: with connected books, the tether between the author and the book is still one discrete transaction, you could to a book, with the expectation that an author will continually add to it. This would be more suitable for nonfiction than novels, but it's also possible that a novelist might decide to rewrite an ending, or change something in the middle of the story. We could return to the era of Dickens-style serializations. With an always-on book, it's conceivable that an author could not only rework the narrative for future buyers, but he or she could reach inside people's libraries and make the change. (Let's also hope Amazon security is strong, so that we don't find one day that someone has hacked "Harry Potter" or "Madame Bovary.")

A little further on, Levy's enthusiasm gives way to barely muted pessimism and ends on an ominous note tempered with a little gallows humor thrown in.

The Kindle, shipping as you read this, costs $399. No way around it: it's pricey. But if all goes well for Amazon, several years from now we'll see revamped Kindles, equipped with color screens and other features, selling for much less. And physical bookstores, like the shuttered Tower Records of today, will be lonelier places, as digital reading thrusts us into an exciting—and jarring—post-Gutenberg era..... the battery has to last for a while... since there's nothing sadder than a book you can't read because of electile dysfunction. (The Kindle gets as many as 30 hours of reading on a charge, and recharges in two hours.) And, to soothe the anxieties of print-culture stalwarts, in sleep mode the Kindle displays retro images of ancient texts, early printing presses and beloved authors like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen.

It will operate much like a mobile phone, not requiring wireless routers and “hot spots” that portable laptop computers usually need in order to work. Once downloaded the book is yours to keep, however the potential for unwanted satellite-assisted editing suggests all sorts of possibilities. Major entities controlling the Internet and other means of dissemination of information could continually revise history (or what the general public believes to be history) according to its own agenda. Much like AM rant radio and some television networks do now.

If the Kindle, or devices like it (that depend on satellite technology), eventually catch on and solidify the arrival of the post-Gutenberg era, independent publishing and book-selling may be pushed even further into the background, and companies such as News Corporation, Clear Channel, Time Warner and the like, would find it easier to control even more of the production and distribution of much of what we read, view and listen to.

The media moguls might look unfavorably on books like Naomi Wolf's The End of America. Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (White River Junction, Chelsea Green, 2007). Wolf's book, subtitled “A Citizen's Call to Action”, is both provocative and serious and I do hope millions of people read it before the next election. The soft cover, looking much like typical 18th century printed wrappers, and the type faces were deliberately chosen to suggest Thomas Paine's Common Sense and similar tracts from the golden age of pamphleteering. (If you can't find it at your bookstore, call the folks at Chelsea Green (802.295.6300) or go to: www.chelseagreen.com)

Looking around here I see text from the 15th century to the present stored in all sorts of ways. Some of it, from the early '80s, is in WordStar on a 5-1/4'' floppy diskette that ran on a KayPro computer with a CPM operating system. Nobody supports CPM any more so I'd have a hard time trying to read any of it.

Some things from the late '80s are in WordStar on 5-1/4'' floppies that ran on an MS-DOS machine. No one supports that technology either so anything saved on them would be hard to read as well. From the '90s and the early years of Windows, we have text on both 5-1/4'' and 3-1/2'' floppies – do you know any computer vendor who, except under duress, would install a floppy drive of any type on the machines they sell? DVDs (r/w) are clunky, memory sticks alright, flash drives probably better, but if you keep your diary or journal on any of these, do you suppose anyone twenty or thirty years from now will be able to read it? By that time USB ports will probably have gone the way of the 8-track tape deck or the 45 rpm record player. Your journal lovingly recorded and backed up on a flash drive would be ephemera in its purest form – something that wasn't intended to survive and dutifully obliges.

I also have a saved document recommending the removal of a certain head of state (hint: his name is George) for reasons having to do with mental incapacity bordering on insanity. No no, not that one. The title is Considerations on the Establishment of A Regency, the writer's name is William Grenville, and it's a serious discussion of the “affecting situation” (a nice way of describing someone with diminished mental capacity, don't you think?) of King George III. Grenville suggests:

Unless some favourable turn should take place with respect to his Majesty's disorder, there may soon exist an unavoidable necessity of doing that, which must be painful to the feelings of every man—of making some temporary provision for administering the executive power, during the suspension of its exercise in those hands in which the constitution of our country has lodged it...

The piece runs to 69 pages, was printed in London by John Stockdale (opposite Burlington-House, Piccadilly) in 1788, on paper manufactured at the time, and stitched as issued. Some years later someone added a binding made from marbled paper-covered boards. Being recorded or backed up on comparatively stable media, not limited by the whim-whams of changing technology, two hundred years from now I think someone will still be able to read it.

If technology has already changed the way most of us write these days, I think there's no doubt that in tandem with economics, it will ultimately dictate how most text will be distributed in the future. I continue to believe that the book, in its present form, will be with us for a long time and its demise, in the words of Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated. From a purely graphics standpoint, books are cheaper to produce than magazines (highly illustrated books using four-color process being an exception). Also, people tend to hang on to their books, while newspapers and magazines are looked at, sometimes read, and generally thrown away.

However, the migration of the periodical press from paper to the Internet is already well advanced. Metropolitan daily newspapers are losing circulation at a steady rate – the only one remaining in Syracuse New York promotes its Sunday edition by featuring the high dollar value of the coupons contained in the advertisements and inserts, while serious international and financial news is gradually being cut back and supplanted by “celebrity” gossip and expanded sports coverage. The classified ad section still seems rather robust, although I understand Craig's List is beginning to make inroads there as well. I myself subscribe to an overseas daily newspaper in order to get what I believe to be a more balanced view of world events.

A good look at the periodical section or checkout counter of almost any supermarket, drug store, or major bookstore indicates the direction and focus of magazine publishing. The Nation, a “weekly journal of progressive political and cultural news, opinion and analysis”, has been around for more than a hundred years but I rarely see it on display at major retail outlets. (A lot of the content, along with links to other websites, is available free at www.thenation.com – full access by subscription only). Whether we like it or not, I think it inevitable that magazines like The Nation will eventually take up permanent home on the Internet, while lavishly-produced, consumer-oriented, life-style and celebrity magazines will continue to flourish and thrive in glossy paper format. After all, we are a market-driven economy, aren't we?

In a previous column we offered our opinion that, our bias towards paper notwithstanding, the future of 18th century-style pamphleteering will be tied to the Internet. For example, from the very start of the presidential campaign, the popular mainstream media and punditocracy have tried to marginalize the candidacies of Paul and Kucinich and in so doing have begun to marginalize themselves. Ron Paul, a Republican, and Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, have been the two most genuinely anti-war, non-interventionist (since before 2003) candidates of either party and for this both men have found themselves both ridiculed and reviled by people who would prefer that they keep their opinions to themselves and out of the public debate. Unfortunately Mr. Kucinich has abandoned his candidacy, but because of the Internet Ron Paul is still in it and probably will be straight through to the convention.

His Internet-based campaign refuses corporate support and relies on small contributions from individuals who are in general agreement with his platform based on a non-interventionist foreign policy, sound money, debt reduction, smaller government, and the abolition of laws relating to victimless crimes (translation: what you smoke is your own business as long as you don't force others to inhale what you exhale). In addressing large gatherings most candidates tend to adjust their message according to the perceived demographic – Ron Paul, who thinks in terms of individual rights rather than group rights, makes it easy for himself by telling everyone the same thing. No wonder many special interest advocacy groups dislike the man.

Until the unfortunate, much publicized and electronically-amplified screech heard around the world, Howard Dean's 2004 campaign was the first to use the Internet to raise money and reach a lot of people. Of course more established candidates with higher name recognition can do the same, but the relatively low cost of web casting and cyber-pamphleteering has evened the pitch or playing field and it will probably remain so unless this country follows China's lead and enacts laws that would control both content and access.

Withal, I don't believe there's a contradiction when suggesting that even in the age of the Internet and Kindle & Company, books will survive – once printed they're unwired, off-line and off the grid. Electrical or ice-storms (like the one we're having at the moment), power outages, server melt-downs, faulty DSL or cable connections, satellites blown out of the sky – none of it matters. With a book, either the sun by day or a candle by night will do the trick quite nicely.

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