Back in October, as a gift-to-myself for getting the Dagger nomination, I bought a spankin’ new Amazon Kindle. Being a sucker for slick gadgets, I’d had a hankering for one for a while, but living in Europe made it useless until the international version came out. So I pulled out my credit card, choked my way through the exorbitant import fees, and waited for it.
And then my world changed…
No, not really. But I do have to admit that I’m liking it quite a lot. Right now, I’ve got over 200 books on the slender thing, and not just Gutenberg titles. I’m able to toss my own manuscripts on there, as well as friends’, and by using Calibre I’ve set up an automatic newspaper subscription that updates five major papers daily—for free.
Even with the hefty European import fees the economics of the thing work out, because, since I live in Europe (where the few local English-language bookstores can’t seem to track down all the books I want), my main source of books has always been Amazon. The titles I get there always cost more than the average $10 ebook price, and shipping costs more. The basic math is that if I buy 40 or so Kindle books, the Kindle will have paid for itself.
The real question, of course, is whether or not one likes reading on the Kindle. That first week I was unsure, but as the ads say, the Kindle really does quickly disappear in your hands, and you soon forget you’re using a machine. Right now I’m rereading Deighton’s Berlin Game on it for class, and it’s going wonderfully. The note-taking aspect (the chicklet keyboard) works well enough, but I’m not quite a convert to that yet, though the search function is terrific. And of course there’s the central problem of all ebooks: I can’t flip through a book to find something I want to cite. Overall, though, the thing really does its job and does it well.
Do I miss “the book” when I’m reading on this? In some ways, yes, but there’s an interesting effect that occurs, something that I think writers might notice more than others—one loses the fetish of the printed page. What I mean to say is that, while reading an ebook, content is absolute king. Not typography, not binding, not cover design—only the abstract words themselves. In this way, one could argue that it’s reading in its purest sense. I’ll admit that there’s certainly an electronica fetish with these things, but when each book looks exactly the same—since you’re reading them all on one machine—there’s no individuality to separate War and Peace from, say, Bridget Jones. It’s like reading all your novels in Word—without the characteristics of typography and design, text and story are all that matter.
Now, before buying it I heard a lot of opinions about the Kindle from friends, usually those who hadn’t ever touched one. The opinions ranged from skeptical to downright hostile. E-books, some believe, will ruin publishing. I don’t see how that could be true—if the public’s willing to pay $10 for a book that costs pretty much nothing to produce (I could turn a manuscript into an ebook on my laptop in five minutes), then all that publishers, authors and ebook-sellers have to do is figure out how to divide up all that green.
No, the tragedy isn’t for publishing; it’s for bookstores. If I don’t have to leave my house to buy a book, then what’s to happen to your local bookstore? It’s a tough question to answer, but it’s the same question that was posed when Amazon itself rose to prominence with their home-delivered bound books. It’s the same question that was asked when Barnes & Noble started taking over the country with their brick & mortars. In each case independents were hurt. Will ebooks be the thing that finally break the back of the independents completely?
I hope not, but I really don’t know. I do know that, at this point in my life, this is the most convenient, cost-effective, and easy way for me to access a lot of books. Not all books—I often run into the brick wall of a title I want not being available in electronic format—but enough of them so that I’ll be reading for years. For those not available for my machine, I do still have an overflowing bookshelf that could probably take on more titles, and I’ll certainly use it.
Perhaps I can mitigate the damage I’m causing by boycotting Amazon when it comes to those those physical books, and only buy them from my nearest independent. It might not save anybody, but it just might make me feel better…