Lucy Ellis, The Kindle: My take on criticism

This blog is part of an ongoing series focused on the Kindle, drawing on the experiences and perspectives of final-year English Literature student, Lucy Ellis. These blog posts are being written as part of Lucy’s first project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University.

Part 5

There’s a lot of stuff on the internet about the book in the digital age. Type it into Google and up comes dozens of blogs, articles, interviews – but also various links to academic criticism on the subject. Hiding in the many libraries of Cardiff University is a lot of academic insight on the shift from books to ebooks, newspapers to online articles, including whether there is even a shift at all.

Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age (2007, repr. 2009) by Jeff Gomez, an author-turned-publisher, ticks a lot a boxes when it comes to first hand experience with change. Although five years out of date, he makes an honourable attempt to answer difficult questions about how the written word has been revolutionised with the introduction of the e-reader.

Summary done, a chapter I was particularly drawn to was ‘ebooks and the revolution that didn’t happen’. He echoes predictions from when the first Rocket ebook was released in 1998, that ebooks were ‘not only going to change everything but they were also going to replace everything’. It brings to light the expectation there was for this supposed revolution. If it wasn’t clear when this book was published in 2009, then it’s clear in 2014 that ebooks have not replaced traditional books by any means, but have simply given readers the option of an alternative platform. He argues that printed books already provide readers with everything they need – a personal, portable platform that can be read and shared as much as a reader wants. So the reason the reading population hasn’t embraced this change is because they have ‘no clear need or desire to do so’. If there’s no gap in the market, why fill it?

It’s a fair point, but Gomez goes on to offer his solution. He talks a lot about DRM (Digital Restrictions Management), which was used on ebooks to stop them being copied and passed around illegally – much like the development of illegal music downloads. He suggests that by pricing ebooks slightly higher but without the DRM, they would no longer have the restrictions of a single digital download but could be shared with friends and used between devices. According to Gomez, this change would ‘finally be one in the win column in the ‘books vs ebooks debate’.

Gomez’s solution is valid. However, it just highlights the outdatedness of this text. Apple removed the controversial DRM from iTunes in 2009, and although Kindle still contains DRM, it can be removed (though illegally). However, the changes to the Kindle over the years now means removing DRM isn’t entirely necessary. Amazon downloads can be used on five different devices, including PCs, smartphones and e-readers. Additionally, initiatives such as allowing Amazon Prime customers to ‘borrow’ a bookfor free and return it when you borrow another simulates the same process as going to the library or loaning off a friend. This is a technique that was used for Helen Cadbury’s book To Catch A Rabbitand while this system isn’t ideal for publishers and authors, Kindle readers potentially never have to buy a book. With all the changes over the last few years, although ebooks are progressing, they’re still not winning on the traditional book. It goes to show that every year away from the present is more outdated in relation to the ‘digital age’.

Instead, I think Edward Tenner’s article, ‘The Prestigious Inconvenience of Print’ (2007), makes a far more valid point about why some readers are sticking to print:

“Just as luxury watches remain in demand while most people carry cell phones that give the time with virtually observatory-standard accuracy, the Web will never destroy older media because their technical difficulties and risks help create glamour and interest”

It reminds me of a time I was applying for work experience at sixteen. Despite e-mails being far quicker and easier to send, my mum insisted I send a handwritten letter on good quality paper to every appropriate company asking for work experience. Someone eventually replied, by e-mail, but it makes you realise how there is a consensus that traditional mediums are somehow more valuable. A letter is seen as something precious and of huge importance (well, for me anyway). Perhaps in the future, no matter how popular ebooks become, they will never shun out the antiquity of a good old-fashioned book.

After reading multiple criticism and generally dwelling on my thoughts throughout this project, it is clear that there is a bigger issue above how to we read books: reading itself. Bill Cope and Angus Phillips’s The Future of the Book in the Digital AgeImage (2006) points out a critical fact that arguably explains the lack of significant impact ebooks have had. Only 50% of adults in the US read literature (classed as novels, short stories, poetry, plays) – down 20% in 20 years. Considering this book was published n 2009, the figure can only have declined further. In a new world of technology, I’d say it’s natural that more interactive hobbies and forms of media have taken over. But in fact we are reading all the time. Referring back to Gomez, although ebook sales are still fairly low, ‘many of us spend all day reading electronically, including magazine and news material, e-mail and web-surfing’. So there is a digital reading revolution, but not necessarily for traditional paperback books. If ‘books’ are there to inform us, spark our imagination or outline a political view, then that’s happening every day online.

I came to write this blog with an aim to explore further the ‘phenomenon’ of the Amazon Kindle. That I feel I have achieved, but it has made me realise that this debate spans far further than the print vs ebooks debate, but brings us to question our entire culture. And that will take a little more than five blogs from an English Literature undergrad to explore.


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