Having made a series of increasingly challenging transitions to indoor plumbing, cell phones, cable TV, living in California and blogging, I am ready for the next step in my evolution: eBooks.
eGad, you say; not Nixon! Protector of the printed word, lover of libraries and proponent of pen on paper, when possible?
Yes, I dood it. I turned on the eBook reader I was given, registered, and launched forth into the cypersphere via yet another annoying gizmo.
My record is not all that shabby at adopting technology. Admittedly I was slow on the uptake of having voicemail at home or using ATMs and was certainly not in the first wave of owning a personal computer. Luckily, at the dawn of the convergence of digital technology and video, I went to work in the video business AT a technology company. There, I managed to pick up a little of the technobug: enough to inoculate me without getting the full-on disease. Work took me to Hong Kong in the late 80s, just as some of the first true digital media was evolving, and, while I didn’t bring back a DAT (digital audio tape) machine, as did my more fervent colleagues (DAT was excluded from early introduction into the U.S. because the music industry feared what it might do to the insanely inflated prices they’d attached to the introduction of music CDs — imagine that!), I did buy my first digital watch (ten Hong Kong dollars, in Kowloon) and we all came back with devices the size of credit cards and the thickness of iPods that would hold several hundred kilobytes of names and addresses. We all spent the 14-hour flight back home pecking names and addresses and phone numbers into those little precursors of PDAs. That data, of course, was lost once the power source failed in those early flash-memory devices. The connected world of today was yet to be born.
I’ve written recently about my relatively early embrace of the Usenet and ServLists (CLICK HERE), and I, if I do say so myself, was in the vanguard of the Web, spending the many spare hours I had after moving to California, freelancing, building a Web site which still resides out there. CLICK HERE to see it (hundreds of the pages are there, but do not try to go to the Home page: I’ve taken it down, and none of the e-mail addresses are current). That, my children, is all hand-written HTML and is what the Web looked like in days before you were born, with photos scanned from film prints. Shocking, I know, but true. Your forefathers (and foremothers) suffered travails unknown to you.
So, there I sat with the little reader device in my hand, not much thicker than that original Hong Kong electronic address book, and about the size of a church bulletin. This was it! My inaugural betrayal of six hundred years of printed books! Gutenberg, we at least owe you this, so I went to http://www.gutenberg.org, which offers digital downloads of out-of-copyright classical books. First book to download? Well, what else could it be: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I might as well start at the top of the food chain with what is, arguably, Jonathan Franzen, James North Patterson and Arthur Hailey to the contrary, the GAN (Great American Novel).
A few odd clicks and commands with the doinky control knob later, and there I had it; the timeless opening: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter ….” Those words, written in a dialect of American speech, were a revolution in their day which we can scarcely appreciate. Mr. Clemens, we salute you.
That Gutenberg site itself is a signifier of the current digital reading revolution. I am all too aware that by downloading texts from it I am depriving an entire arm of the world’s publishing enterprise of some bread-and-butter income they’ve become quite accustomed to. With minimal effort for the past three or four or five decades, they’ve been able to gather up public domain properties like the works of Twain, Poe, Tolstoy, Dickens and Wilde, and package them into low-cost volumes that provided a steady income for those in possession of editors, proofreaders, printers and distributors. They’ll have to get over it. Prestidigitalization, thy name is Legion!
And, let me say immediately: authors, agents, publishers and their dependents, be on guard!
The Gutenberg site is not the only an aggregator of digital downloads for reading, it’s a bellwether among many of its type. One compelling way to view it is by taking a look at the most popular downloads from its cache of public domain works. CLICK HERE to see Gutenberg.org’s top 100 authors in the past 30 days (you can also sort the list by shorter time periods).
At the top of the list, when I viewed it today: Arthur Conan Doyle. Second: Twain. But why is Sir Richard Burton, the legendary explorer and traveler of Victorian/Edwardian England there? If you click on his entry, you find — ah-hah — that it’s for his translations of the Book of a Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra. The Kama Sutra, without a doubt, leads the list of gutenberg.org downloads. Well, pornography is what drove the adoption of VHS video tape and is probably something like 80% of what goes on across the Internet, so we shouldn’t be surprised — NOT that these rank as pornography. Just a “related” category.
What would those 19th-Century authors think of their works being available, free of charge, to an entire worldwide readership? They lived in a world in which mass production and distribution of printed works already prevailed, and they reaped the harvest. If one were Charles Dickens, who made his living by serializing his enormously popular work, one would imagine him having a hemorrhage over the loss of royalties!
While I was at it, I downloaded a few other classics: Three Men in a Boat, a couple of Joseph Conrad novels, some Philip K. Dick short stories, a book by the Dutch writer Multatuli (thanks, Hairycoo!) and as much P.G. Wodehouse as I thought I could absorb.
Then I began considering what ELSE this device might do. Although I don’t have an iPhone, I have a relatively advanced cell phone-based PDA, but I’ve never used it to access Web sites, since the tiny screen is just not suitable. But here was a larger format display, wireless, with access to Internet sites, and, by golly, when I typed in https://blaknissan.wordpress.com, there I was seeing this very blog. Wouldn’t you know it, the very first thing I noticed was that the entry I’d opened had two typos! Dang.
There are probably far more of these devices than you’re aware of. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Sony come quickly to mind, but take a look at the list of devices that support an Adobe format favored by our friends at Powell’s Books: CLICK HERE. I am going to leave aside the threat that eBooks pose to wonderful institutions like Powell’s, to independent bookstores, and the challenge they represent for libraries, all of whom are represented by regular readers of this blog. Ladies and gentlemen, what is to be done?
Well, OK, this eBook thing does work, after a fashion. Wouldn’t it be GREAT if Steve Jobs’s guys would design one? Then there wouldn’t be that balky, clumsy sure-to-fail “5-way button” that my device has. It’s like a toy designed by children: it functions, but you know that in the next five minutes, or, at the most, in 6 months, it’s going to break. I know, I know, Jobs & Co. came out with their iPad, but they made the surface of it so shiny that you can’t sit for 20 minutes and read from it, and it lacks certain features … like a USB port! Bozos!
One of the hardest things to get accustomed to is the eReader’s single mindedness: it only does one thing at a time. Even my moderately advanced cell phone can do several things at once: its e-mail function is always on, and it can have a couple of processes running at the same time, or at least I can toggle back and forth between them. With this e-reader, one is browsing in a list of books, or one is reading a text, or one is changing the settings, but only ONE THING AT A TIME. I might as well be sitting on that plane coming back from Hong Kong, 20 years ago, if only someone had put 2 or 3 processors into the package, instead of one.
Clearly, this is a transitional device. Soon, very soon, these functions will be absorbed by and offered on some other platform, whether it’s an easier-to-use cellphone or netbook or something that wires into those metal studs on your neck and provides a heads-up holographic display in front of you. When it arrives, we’ll wonder why WE didn’t think of it!
The biggest change, though, will be for the authors and publishers of texts. The change is here, kids, and we’d better take notice. The extremely powerful and influential Wylie Agency thought they had it sussed out. MANY of their longtime clients, including Nabokov and Updike and Mailer and others had agreements negotiated with publishers by Wylie, and none of these contracts addressed digital copyright issues. Wylie took the aggressive step of establishing a separate publishing entity and negotiating new agreements with Amazon regarding those rights for the Kindle and other eBook devices. This would have put digital publishing rights for Lolita and Updike’s Rabbit books, and those of a score of other big-time authors in Wylie’s hands, and out of the control of their longtime publishers, like Random House. Mayhem ensued, and, interesting, the traditional publisher, Random House, won out, securing back control of their longtime properties.
I picture Sam Clemens, an innovator in his day, sitting there in his big house up on the hill above Hartford, typing on that blasted typewriter that, for him, was a marvel of innovation in his day, and what he might say to us now.