12 October 2009

Google Books, Kindle, et al.: What more can be said?

Sarah Werner at Wynken de Worde just put up a thoughtful post digesting the most recent crop of articles to either bemoan or praise e-books and e-reading.
But much of what I'm seeing written in the popular press about e-book readers isn't, I don't think, taking into account the full picture. Some of the stories I mentioned above hint at the problem of Amazon's essential monopoly over the current e-field. I know Sony has an e-reader, but given Amazon's vertical integration, they hold an incredible portion of the e-market in their tight e-fist. (E-sorry. It's hard to stop the e-jokes.) If there was some competition in that market, the problems of pricing and availability and Big Brother would be different.

More to this blog's point, what does the current state of e-readers and discussion have to do with book history and book historians? ... what happens when we get to the day that works are created for and intended to be experienced as e-books? How will that change the experience of using books? And how will we ensure the survival of those books? ... Similarly, how might the availability of new digital formats affect the process of creating works?
I share Sarah's interests, questions and concerns, but have to add one question: How can media and book historians (as well as academics more broadly) talk about, insert themselves into, the Kindle debates? We've developed sophisticated ways of talking about early modern reading practices, identified differences and dichotomies, even come up with a few nifty schemas for studying the circulation and production of print culture. This seems easy to do this, because we're talking about the past, what is dead and gone, existing only in (unsettlingly) silent artifacts. By contrast, the "e-book" debates are shockingly noisy, cluttered with the noise of real consumers -- not just dead words we can sift through on a page, but real people who confront us daily on the bus, clutching their Kindles; who live with us, bringing their e-readers to bed with them. How can we sort through this mess?

Are the twin poles of "I like the feel of paper, of a 'real' book" and "the Kindle is just so darn convenient!" really all we can say? Just about every talk I've been to on the subject -- talks at universities and conferences, by book historians -- stays locked in the logic of commerce, consumerism and individual preference, even when (especially when?) the speaker is resisting these very binarisms. And the academic interventions into the public debate (I'm thinking, for instance, of Rob Darnton's articles on Google Books in the New York Times) have been only minimally successful at using historical models. These examples are provoking but remained, for the most part, unprobed.

Which is all to say: if I see one more otherwise theoretically-savvy academic give a talk on the digitization of knowledge that, frankly, a high schooler could have given, I just might tear a few dreads out. Am I alone in this feeling? What can we say, what can we contribute to this debate?


I have seen one (sadly, only one) very excellent talk on Google Books, given by Lisa Gitelman at MiT6. Bypassing the usual jargon about search algorithms and commercialization and publisher's contracts and copyright (we all suddenly start speaking legalese when talking about Google Books), Lisa showed the ghostly images of hands caught while scanning in the pages. What histories of human work (she asked) are elided in the process of converting one very tactile medium into another?

It's a brilliant angle, one that allows us to bring history to bear on the subject without getting trapped in "history-is-repeating-itself" (the excuse that lets historians gracefully bow out of the noisy mess of contemporary consumerism). I like Sarah, feel overwhelmed by the flood of information on e-reading, e-writing, e-books; and I wonder what else can, and should, be said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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