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upstaged again

July 22, 2009

today, while doing one kind of work (although not the kind i’m supposed to be doing during the day), i came across an interview with sherman alexie, who i’ve long adored, talking about why he hates ebooks. since i’m leery of them myself (i love the tactile experience of reading a book), but working in publishing, where digital is the future, i found the piece interesting. here’s the best part:

I love my iPod, my cell phone, my computer, and my HDTV. I have and enjoy a strong Internet presence with a great website and I have published poems and stories all over the web. In fact, I just published a poem that’s in the current online and print versions of the New Yorker. People are eager to portray me as being anti-technology, but that’s not the case at all. I think the iPod is as vital as the fork and wheel. So I’m not even sure why I have this strange, subterranean fear and loathing of the Kindle and its kind. I think it’s really about childhood. Books saved my life, Edward. I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books. And all of my senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste-come into play when I think and read about books. Books are tactile and eccentric. An eBook will always be a gorgeous but anonymous box. It will also be just a tool–perhaps an amazing and useful tool-but I don’t want it to replace the book. And I’m worried that many people don’t care about the book itself, and see the eBook as a replacement. And I’m worried that Amazon and other eBook distributors will completely replace bookstores. The careers of nearly every successful writer are based on the amazing human interaction between bookstore employees and readers. I enjoy an amazing career because, over the last seventeen years, bookstore employees, librarians, and book lovers have handed a copy of my book to another person and said, “You have to read this.” That face-to-face interaction will become more and more rare. Sure, the Internet can launch careers, but there is a loss of intimacy that should be acknowledged and mourned.

i agree with so much of this – he’s saying a lot of what i would say, only more eloquently, because he’s sherman alexie and i’m just me. but the point that i find most affecting, and which he discusses in more detail earlier in the piece, is the way that physical books are accessible to anyone. even a poor child can get a library card. i’m certainly not the only kid who grew up relying primarily on the public library and the bargain bin at the used bookstore for reading material. but if reading becomes totally reliant on ebook readers or internet access, then what happens to that ease of access? 

as i said, part of my attachment to books is tactile. i love the smell and feel of books; i love seeing them lined up on my shelves, all different sizes and colors and editions. many of the people i know feel the same way. now, i work in publishing and before that i spent a lot of time with historians, both groups that tend to attract bibliophiles, so this is probably not a very good sample group. but think back to your own childhood, to brightly colored board books and being read to at bedtime: would those memories be different for you if instead that was an ereader? will these distinctions matter less in the future? will these problems sort themselves out long before digital books take over the market?

we might dismiss the nostalgic and emotional connections that contemporary readers have to physical books, but we should take alexie’s ideas seriously. as we charge boldly into this new future of digital media, publishers and ebook vendors (and readers) need to think about the relationships between readers and books, and how ebooks will change that.

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One comment

  1. Cool quote, and I agree. As you can see by my house.

    (The only reason I would get a Kindle, I think, is if I traveled a lot. Because I can’t leave the house for a week without at least 15 pounds in books, and my back just can’t take it anymore).



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