The Trouble with Kindle: or, real books will never disappear

July 22, 2009 at 12:00 am 5 comments

…we’ve been taught to believe that e-books are, you know, just like books, only better. Already, we’ve learned that they’re not really like books, in that once we’re finished reading them, we can’t resell or even donate them. But now we learn that all sales may not even be final. – David Pogue

I originally had a review planned for today, but I have thankfully stumbled on The New York Times’ book blog, entitled Paper Cuts. Thrilled to find a new way to catch up on what the NYT is thinking and wiriting about books, I clicked happily around for a little bit before finding this article by David Pogue (technology writer extraordinaire).

Essentially what has happened here is that, caving to pressure from a publisher, electronically removed certain editions of the e-books 1984 and Animal Farm from the Kindles of those who bought them. A later Times article explains that the books were unauthorized versions and when the mistake was caught, Amazon remotely deleted the books and refunded the money to the customers’ accounts.

Though I can see how Amazon did what they thought was best, and though they have promised that they would not take such an action again, this event brings two issues to the forefront. One, what affect will wireless reading devices such as Kindle have on pirated and unauthorized editions of books? Two, with the shocking impermenance of electronic reading material, can real books ever disappear?

To address the first question, the technological age has already had a striking impact on the book world. Fan fiction is now a booming form of writing, prevalent in a way that would not have been possible without the internet, leaks of much-anticipated books have left authors and fans at odds, and the translation of a helpful website to a  profitable book sparked controversy over copyright law. It would not be a large step to go from this sort of thing to a large-scale releasing of electronic books, derivative or otherwise, that would be virtually impossible to regulate; if these unauthorized copies of 1984 and Animal Farm made it onto the Amazon website, who is to say that authors of derivative works could not make their unauthorized books profitable in a similar way?

As for the second question, the impermenance of books has been discussed at length, and actually Corey has reviewed one of the books that discusses it here. While in theory, a computer file could potentially last longer than a paper-and-paste book that can be torn, grow mold, or get colored on by a toddler, it is much easier to eradicate a file, as we’ve seen in this case. We’ve all accidentally deleted comuter files in the past, and while I realize that experienced hackers can recover files from pretty much anything, most of us are not that clever.

If, as in this case, a file has only been distributed in such a way that the distributor retains all control over the file, it would be very easy to make that file disappear. Extrapolating from there leads to the inevitable conclusion that e-books make censorship easy. Rather than book-burning, book-deleting will become the preferred method for censors of the future.

The sad part is, I would prefer the book-burning — at least the fire and the throwing make some sort of emotional sense. If you’re destroying records of human thought, it should be violent and horrifying and messy. But the act of deleting a computer file is imbued with the kind of cold, empty lack of emotion often associated with, ironically, Orwell’s 1984.


Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kim  |  July 22, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    COMMENT COMMENT! I hate Kindle. I really, really do. No cracking of spines, no new book smell, no -old- book smell…also, studies have shown that the more hours you watch TV or are on the computer, the slower you are mentally. Two minutes in, and your eyes are glazed over at the screen already. It’s true. So. Not only will you be missing out on the things I mentioned, but you will actually not be doing yourself many favors. Where’s the inspiration from staring at a screen? But a book you can actually crack open and dive into. I don’t know how to explain it, but Kindle kills my soul slowly.

  • 2. KT  |  July 24, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Your little stat there has changed my life — I am now writing my thesis by hand and it’s going SO MUCH BETTER! So thanks for the comment, Kimmers :D

    Additionally, yeah, I could never read a full book on a screen. The only time I ever used an e-book was for a paper, and that’s only because I could search the e-text for a keyword or phrase and then figure out where it was in my REAL book faster. Otherwise, BOOO FAKE BOOKS.

  • 3. KT  |  July 24, 2009 at 10:51 am

    OH ALSO, it’s just one more way our lives are falling into the virtual rather than the actual. Virtual conversations via text messages, virtual friendships based on Facebook stalking…and virtual books that can disappear without warning. Argh.

  • 4. Incredible Hulk  |  January 13, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    my only fear of the kindle is that in the long run, less people will read, I mean, by the next generation or two, the reason is that there will probably be hardly any bookstores, and the allure of walking into one and browsing with physical products will be gone. It will be harder for people to realize that books exist if its only in a virtual world! They will have too much competition from other media! Also, because of the self publishing, it will take a longer time to figure out what is good

  • 5. Bookish Clips « Literary Transgressions  |  February 21, 2011 at 12:08 am

    […] up, we have the Continuing Adventures of How the Kindle Isn’t Like A Book: David Pogue takes a look at how page numbers are proving a difficulty for devices where there are […]


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