Reading is Awesome

A screensaver on Amazon's Kindle eReader

A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BOOK:

While a lot of people take it for granted, the book as a proper, commercial item per se is relatively a new thing. A whole host of things contributed to the rarity and scarcity of the book prior to around 1450, almost all of them having to do with the actual creation of the thing. Until moveable type, you essentially just had scribes (typically monks), copying over texts. These were rare and usually only owned by individuals who were rich enough to commission such a thing (imagine today, for example, hiring someone to copy out, illustrate, and bind by hand The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or A Song of Ice and Fire or whatever — that wouldn’t be cheap, even today). In the mid fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized printing with his moveable type — suddenly, printing became, well, easy to do. And while it still wasn’t incredibly cheap, it was possible for less rich and influential people to read their own books. While Gutenberg and the press were met with scorn, it’s hard to deny that he improved the printing world for the better.

THE CHAPTERS EFFECT

THE DOWNSIDE:

With that context, taking a look at the big box book retailers Chapters or Barnes and Noble can be a useful exercise. While book sales saw a dip in the mid 2000’s, the situation was nowhere near as dire as the music industry. With the proliferation of big box retailers, in fact, book sales have gone up. There are two important things to note regarding that, however:

1) Chapters/B&N/etc have caused the shutdown of small bookstores. On the one hand, were you the type to frequent an independent bookstore (unlike myself), and were you the type to get all of your book recommendations there, this is certainly bad.

As a rule, small businesses, though they typically get less revenue than the big ones, tend to pay better and have better benefits for employees. This might be something that’s important to you or might not. The fact is that it’s impossible to deny that smaller retailers are hurt by larger ones. Whether or not you agree with the concept of big box stores itself is another matter, of course. On the one hand, they tend to be great for consumers (better selection, prices) and incredibly lucrative. On the other, they’re bad for employees and death for competition.

2) Chapters/B&N/etc have in some ways hurt publishers. Big box retailers can afford to get books for cheaper from wholesalers (and to, because of their dominant position, force publishers to acquiesce to which they wouldn’t normally), which means per book, the publisher makes less money. Add in the fact that the larger chains can print their own books and not rely on a third party altogether, and you have some upset publishers. While the profits in the book industry the last few years have been going up, the overall percentage going towards publishers has diminished. Considering the fact that authors are typically at the bottom of the totem pole, typically getting shafted in the revenue department, that’s not good for them, either. But, again, given that publishers routinely screw their writers, it’s hard to get upset when their profit margins are down.

THE UPSIDE… AND WHY TWILIGHT IS AWESOME:

Personally, I dislike stores like Chapters and Barnes & Noble. As a book nerd, I don’t like the idea that small, mom and pop bookstores are getting shut down, and the idea that someone named “Heather” down at Chapters HQ is picking out books for the masses gives me an uncomfortableness. It bugs me that I can walk into a Chapters and find a Kids section that rivals a Toys “R” Us or that I can get a Doublemochafrappachinotwopumpcaramelonepumpmintovericeplease (in a venti, which is Italian for twenty, because of how fancy this coffee is) while I’m deciding which piece of gimmicky stationary I want (though, to be honest, I got a bunch of really neat Christmas presents for family there!). But, this is the most important thing in the world to me: these stores get people to read. I’m going to be honest: the staff at the local bookstores I go to are next to useless, are snobby, and typically don’t know what they’re talking about. They seem to see themselves as guardians of an elite font of knowledge, that only the most qualified people should have access to. And it’s bullshit: knowledge should be for everyone. If everybody on the planet was literate and read a book a year, even if it’s Dan Brown or Charlaine Harris or Tom Clancy or J. K. Rowling, the world would be a better place.

Consider this: one out of every three high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, 42% of college graduates never read another book after college, 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year, 70% of US adults have not been inside a bookstore in the last five years, and (the least surprising for me, actually), 57% of new books are never read to completion (see more stats here). With numbers like that, anything that gets people to read more is a positive thing. Which is why booksnobbery is one of the worst things in the world. There is nothing wrong with Twilight. I’ve never read any of the novels and very likely never will, but every single art object  has value. Maybe the literary content of Twilight isn’t that great, but surely there is something to be gained, and surely there is some value in just reading for reading’s sake. Say what you will about J. K. Rowling, but she got millions of kids to do something that many hadn’t done unless forced to — she got them to read a book. Booksnobbery, i.e., only reading critically acclaimed  books because it makes you feel smarter, isn’t so great. I read often — I wrote my English honours essay on a late-nineteenth / early-twentieth century autobiography, a book that is rarely taught in schools and when it is, usually in the form of a single chapter. Despite that, the last ten or so books I’ve read have either been written by George R. R. Martin, or had “Star Wars” somewhere in the title. Reading for reading’s sake is just good for you, whether it’s “pulp” or literary gold.

FIGHT PIRACY.

Which is why eReaders such as the nook or kobo or kindle (note: all have their titles styled in lowercase) are absolutely awesome (ignoring complaints about the actual devices themselves in terms of readability/whatever: I find my kindle to be indispensable and better than owning a physical book — this post isn’t about that necessarily and focuses on the idea of eReaders themselves). Critics have complained that such eReaders will be a death knell for the already (supposedly) ailing book industry and is certain death for magazines and newspapers, but this certainly doesn’t add up. Rather than seeing e-books as the enemy, publishing houses should see them as an ally. The RIAA, for example, hasn’t been terribly successful in saving the music industry. This was due to the ham-fisted way they sued everybody who so much as downloaded an mp3, which itself was due to a previous inaccessibility of legal, downloadable music free of clunky and confusing DRM and terms of use and a general perceived lack of music worth buying. While music pirating is still out there, and while music sales have never really recovered, because of services like iTunes, people are, in fact, paying for music they could just as easily steal. Music producers learned the hard way, in the end, and now make it easy to get music online. TV and movie producers have begun to catch on, as well. $8 for a monthly subscription to Netflix, for example, allows you to stream TV and movies without an issue. If you watch one movie a month, you’re paying just as much as if you watched two hundred. By having a cheap and easily accessible way to watch movies and TV legally, they’re deterring piracy. One of the funniest men in the world, Louis C. K., recently released a video Live at the Beacon Theatre on his website. It’s incredibly easy to pirate because it has no DRM whatsoever, and the terms of use allow you to download it and subsequently watch it as many times as you want. You can burn it to a DVD or your flash drive or whatever, no problem. By just asking for $5, he has offered a cheap and easy way to watch stand-up gold (note: one of the funniest things I’ve watched all year). Joss Whedon did it with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. While the overall idea and conception of the thing is much different, the execution is the same. There are some people who will never pay for stuff. They will pirate non-stop just for the hell of it. Certain people enjoy trying to steal software/audio/video. If you make it easy — if you make it so it isn’t a challenge at all — you take away the incentive for them and allow honest people to get something with ease.

Which is what certain publishing houses seem to be catching on to. They release e-books at lower prices than their physical counterparts and make them easy to access. While Amazon/B&N/Chapters etc all have different rules and so on regarding the use of the thing you have bought, it remains pretty similar. The fact is that it is terribly easy to pirate books: find a .torrent, copy and paste onto your device’s drive (this may vary from unit to unit, certainly), and you’re set. But on the other hand, it is incredibly easy to buy them legally, especially when your typical ebook is just a couple of dollars, if that. And people are paying and eReaders are getting more and more popular. Add in self-publishing and the amount of control certain companies (I’m thinking of Amazon) give authors to self-publish, and what you have is a new kind of book industry: the books are all there still, but publishers are being edged out. And this, I think, is where a lot of the opposition to eReaders comes from: the publishing industry industry itself. eReaders edge out the big box retailers (which themselves edged out small bookstores, so it becomes hard to feel sorry for B&N having to close its doors or whatever) and publishers, and put eBook distributors like the kindle store in their place. Good for readers, bad for everyone else, I guess.

THERE ARE BRICKS, BUT NO TEMPLES

Reading is awesome. As someone who reads regularly, there are very few things I find more satisfying. I like it when people read. I don’t care if it’s Stephanie Meyer or Charlaine Harris or Emily Brontë or Oscar Wilde or J. K. Rowling or Stephen King or Chuck Palahnuik or whoever — just as long as they’re reading, I’m happy. Reading is power, after all. Ignoring the fact that Wikipedia is, well, written by a tight-knit group of contentious self-aggrandizing pedants, the core goal of making knowledge accessible to everyone is incredibly noble. Opening up knowledge by making books so very accessible is noble, too. eReaders and their producers aren’t without their faults, of course, and just as how we’re critical with the publishing industry with its price gouging, we should be conscientious about Amazon and remember that even if their goals are altruistic, money — and lots of it — is at stake, and so we should be careful.

At the end of the day, we also have to remember that reading is, at its core, about the reader. One’s reaction to characters in literature, such as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Grand Admiral Thrawn in the awesome Thrawn Trilogy set in the Star Wars Universe, is, in a sense, one’s reaction to oneself. Reading is a mostly introspective act: sure, you’re reading something else and maybe you’re talking to other people about it and so on, but at the end of the day reading is an experience or a journey. It’s an act of self-discovery. Sure you learn things about other things, but how you react to what you read is incredibly telling. Reading is always about the reader, and that’s a good thing.

Reading isn’t about the publisher, or the author, or the thing you’re reading on. It really is about the reader. Writing, as a profession, isn’t at risk. While writing is relatively new, storytelling has been around forever. It will always be around. The fearmongering that you hear, that you need to support your local bookstore or that every time you buy a kindle a cat dies, is missing the point, I think. We should be somewhat careful about what we read, of course, and avoid stupid revisionism and egotistical gangsterism, but at the end of the day, reading is about the reader: reading for reading’s sake should be the goal.

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