I sincerely believe that if Amazon's Kindle or Sony's Reader Digital Book or perhaps an iPhone eReader application were to take off the way the iPod has over the last five years, bookstores as we know them would cease to exist. Sure, there would be some small, niche stores. Perhaps even a few general booksellers that were a tiny fraction of the size of my store could exist in big tourist destinations, but the world of oversized chain booksellers and scrappy full-service, general independents would largely disappear.
Instead of trying to put together a rational, logical essay about all of these ideas swirling in my head, I thought I'd just jot down a few thoughts about eBooks, in an effort to join the conversation.
- The prices of Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader are outrageous. We are talking about a device to enable people to read books. Books, the top source of information for about 500 years, have been relatively affordable, throughout modern history, for people of all walks of life. New books generally range in price from $3 (Dover classics and children's early readers) to $35 (hardcover biographies or histories). The $359 price tag truly prevents eReaders from being something that will be available to all classes of Americans, let alone people in poorer countries. If some books are eventually only published as eBooks, millions of people will not have access to them. That's scary.
- Every new scientific or technological idea is not necessarily a good one. My wife and I have been debating the merits of cloning Neanderthals for the past few weeks. I've been in favor of bringing our ancient relatives back to life. It would only take about 30 million dollars to meet one. We could clone about 25,000 (a small city) if we spent the entire stimulus bill on the project. My wife is concerned about the ethics and humanity of the enterprise. EBooks seem about as necessary in today's world as Neanderthals. For generations, the book has been an unbelievably efficient means of communicating complex ideas and stories. EBooks don't add anything to the reading experience. IPods, on the other hand, allow us to mix our music and categorize it in ways that weren't possible unless you were a disc jockey. We aren't going to make mixed books. Do you need to carry around 100 books? Should we scrap books simply because we can? What are the real ramifications of digitizing our cultural legacy? Could a virus wipe out a future Thomas Paine's cry for revolution?
- Reading is a vacation from the computer and television screens. We spend half our waking lives, maybe more, in front of these screens. Reading a book slows us down, forces us to concentrate in a way that neither the television nor the Internet does. If reading a novel is no different than reading a website with multiple links, will our ability to focus on something longer than a blog post begin to erode?
- Now that I have a baby, I seem to find myself in the library a bit more. It's a restful place in downtown Boulder with excellent diaper-changing facilities. We've started borrowing DVDs and books on CD while we are there. Almost all of the library's numerous patrons are glued to computer screens. Many are watching entertainment videos on YouTube, viewing sports clips on ESPN or just tweaking their resumes. Often, I amble, virtually alone, through the stacks of books, glancing at their colorful spines. I get the feeling in those quiet aisles, as I look at John Dos Passos' collected works taking up half a shelf, that I'm witnessing the demise of a whole civilization of learning. I think eBooks will just hasten the decline. Without their physical aspect, books will have no chance of competing in the entertainment world.
- Each night, I read a book to our four-month-old daughter, Martina, before putting her to bed. We've read Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson, my personal favorite, Chubbo's Pool by Betsy Lewin, I Kissed the Baby by Mary Murphy and Dawn by Uri Shulevitz several times. I perch her on my lap and spread open the beautiful, illustrated pages before her. The paintings take up most of her field of vision. She's completely absorbed by the riot of colors and shapes that she sees. EBooks will never be able to do that.
There are two recent blog posts that I would recommend for a sane and rational bookseller perspective on eBooks. Rich Rennick, a bookseller with Malaprop's in Asheville, North Carolina states his belief that there are opportunities for independent bookstores in his post What About EBooks? Patrick, a bookseller with Vromans, the top independent bookstore in Los Angeles, talks about the actual experience of reading an eBook and what the future of eBooks might mean for independents in his recent post, I Read and E-Book (And I Liked It).