Monday, November 30, 2009

"The Electronic Book Burning"

My dear friend Trevor linked me to Alan Kaufman's essay "The Electronic Book Burning" in the current issue of the Evergreen Review. Written in desperate defense of the printed word and as a response to the tidal wave of support for the Kindle and the E-Book, it's a bitter irony that Kaufman's eloquent discourse has been "published" in the online version of the reputable, physically-defunct literary magazine.

I firmly agree with Kaufman's stance.

I recall a time less than a decade ago when I held a personal distaste for the iPod, and a time not long before that when I was against cell phones. Today, my iPod and my phone travel with me everywhere I go, though I seem to retain a relatively Puritan outlook on the propriety of using these gadgets in public.

One of the more difficult obstacles I've encountered in my other blog, The Chicago T-Shirt Project, which hinges on my ability to approach and engage strangers, is the percentage of people tied to their headphones and cell phones. I remember a teacher in high school telling me that listening to my Discman in the hallways was "antisocial". He was absolutely right. It is now commonly practiced and accepted to take these two technologies traditionally reserved for the privacy of our homes and carry them out with us everywhere we go. In so doing, we shut ourselves off from the outside world even when we leave the house.

This is somewhat tangential to Kaufman's piece, but I think it's fair to say that the Kindle is only the newest and most disgusting harbinger of a forthcoming society where everything is at our fingertips, physical media is a relic consigned to junk shops and thrift stores and we need never leave the house because the library, the video and record store, and the art gallery exist only on our computer screen and we can have the groceries delivered, too.

I used to hate the iPod. Will I someday change my mind about the Kindle? Kaufman suggests that one day in the not-so-distant future I will have no choice. Just as the iTunes Store stocks its digital shelves with exclusive music, soon I may have to download a book if I want to read it. This is a terrifying inevitability. Aside from the necessity of waging this discussion on the internet, the scariest part about it is that we few, we happy few, we band of brothers united against the dismissal of books as an obsolete technology, we will not prove strong enough in constitution to organize, revolt and turn the tide back the way it came.


  1. Is it wrong that I like your response better than the original piece? Because, if it is, I don't want to be right.

    I do have to throw in one counter point though, as I do whenever people get too Bowling Alone about America and the internet as inherently anti-social. And that's this: when it was first created, the internet served as a proxy for real life interactions, and that's where everyone thought we were headed, for good. But more and more often in the last 5 years or so, with the rise of web 2.0 I'd say, you can see more online communities that start online, and then transmute into real world relationships. The nerdfighter movement is, obviously, one of the best examples. But you know, so is the small community of MA library students I've hooked into through twitter. So, in many ways, I think we're figuring out ways to replicate some of the social spaces the web is killing within the web itself.

    That said, an American without independent bookstores is an America I want no part in. I'd say the same of record stores, but it almost feels too late to. I mocked you for hating the iPod, but hating the Kindle seems a lot less mockable. Ebooks as a format are something I can imagine doing great, innovative things with. Like, for example, I'm right now subscribed to a project that's going to email me exact replications of the original installments of The Woman in White, on the same dates that readers would have received them in All the Year Round. That is really, really cool, and it's something that could really only be done electronically. But eBooks ARE NOT THE SAME AS REAL BOOKS, and real books need to have a place in the world too.

    I know you probably don't read the Kenyon alumni magazine but if your parents still get it and save it you should dig up this Fall's issue, because they had a bunch of professor's write up their perspective on the Kindle. Sarah Heidt's defense of the book is extremely well-thought out and it'd be worth your time to read it.

  2. One major difference between the iPod and the Kindle is that if I buy a Kindle I can't copy all of the books I already have onto it and then take them to the bonfire (for now, at least). But they still both devalue the art they were intended to uphold in pretty much the same way.

    That said, can I steal e-books off the internet? If I can't, what happens when someone figures out how to?

    As for the Kenyon Bulletin, I particularly loved Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky's bit about not having to lug around the complete works of William Shakespeare anymore. You're an English professor, dude. Nut up or shut up.

  3. I absolutely agree with you about the Kindle BUT the iPod comparison is not one of my reasons. The problem with iPods and cell phones, as you point out here, is that they insulate us from the world around us. However, reading itself is... relatively antisocial. And this is one respect in which eBooks aren't doing *greater* harm, in my opinion. One of the main arguments is for their portability, so conceivably all those on-the-go Kindle users with their latest Sue Grafton downloads (she's up to U!) will actually get out of the house more.

  4. ...which just reminds me of one of my very basic problems with the Kindle and anybody who uses it.

    If you're too busy or too weak, or your purse is too full, or your commute is too long to carry a book around, then, I have to issue a very primitive "go fuck yourself".

    The human race has been lugging books around for centuries longer than any other artistic media and we're still here and we're all the better for it. Great art and invaluable philosophy has in fact been forged from this very idea - that the written word is in and of itself an elevation of our species to a higher level.

    If you're too good for a book, go fuck yourself.