Thursday, September 27, 2012

Libricide in the Digital Age

Plaque in Frankfurt, reminding us of the Nazi book-burning
Via Wikimedia - ArcCan 
My bookshelves are bulging and I am just running out of space for books. I enjoy buying books, but I have a very hard time when it comes to getting rid of them. After I have finished reading a good book, I become attached not just to the physical book, but also to the ideas and memories associated with that book. When I look at the book, I remember the fun I had reading it and I also think about how it made me feel and how it inspired me to think or write.

As an old-fashioned and traditional bookophile, I was a bit reticent when it came to trying it out E-books. I was worried that I would miss the tactile pleasure of thumbing through the physical pages. I was concerned that the digital highlighting on a Kindle reader would be no match for the visual pleasure elicited by the fluorescent glow of my German Stabilo highlighters. I also did not like the fact that I would have to pay the full price for every E-book, because one could not walk into a used ebook store and get bargain books for a few cents.

Nevertheless, I gave it a try. Once I started using the Kindle App on the iPad, I realized that the ability to carry thousands of books around with me, gave me a completely new kind of bookophile pleasure. I missed my Stabilo highlighter and the ability to physically grasp books, but the fact that Rilke, Orwell and Zadie Smith were all tucked away in my backpack, gave me a completely new kind of bookophile pleasure. I was about to extol the pleasures of ebooks to everyone and was thinking about gradually becoming an ebook-only kind of person.

Then I read two articles. The first one was "Will Your Children Inherit Your E-Books?" by Amanda Katz and asked the simple question of how does one inherit E-books?

In the age of the e-book, the paper book faces two possible and antithetical fates. It may become something to be discarded, as with the books that libraries scan and cannibalize. (In the introduction to another book, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, Price mentions the severed book spines that hang on the wall at Google, "like taxidermists' trophies.") Alternatively, it may become a special object to be preserved and traded. My grandfather's copy of War of the Worlds obviously falls into the second category — but very few of the millions of books published since the mid-19th century are ones you'd want to own. If Amazon has a "long tail" of obscure but occasionally purchased titles, the tail that goes back 150 years is near endless and thin as thread.
 Meanwhile, the kind of "serial" book sharing (as Price describes it) that occurs over time is giving way to simultaneous, "synchronous" sharing. With the Kindle, you can see what thousands of other Kindle readers are highlighting in the book you're reading — a fairly astonishing innovation. But the passage of books from hand to hand, gathering inscriptions along the way, is not part of the e-book economy. Will your grandchild inherit your Kindle books? No one knows, but given password protection and the speed at which data becomes obsolete, that seems highly unlikely.
Read more here...

I was stumped by this article. Of course I want my children and grandchildren to inherit my books. I still treasure a small century-old dictionary that my grandfather gave me, and I hope that my grandchildren will also enjoy thumbing through my old books. But how will they do this, if all I leave them are a bunch of files, many which may or may not be password-protected. Will I remember to tell them my Kindle password before I die? Does a dying bookophile gather around their family and tell them "My Kindle password is Lolita underscore Camus" before he passes on? Or will my E-books die with me?

The second article "How to Make a Book Disappear" was written by Maria Konnikova and discussed the ironic disappearance of George Orwell's 1984 from some Kindle devices because the retailer Amazon had detected that certain versions of these E-books were violating the copyright. Konnikova also brought up the excellent point that making digital books vanish could be the future version of book-burning:
An e-book is not a physical book. That point might seem trite until you stop for a moment to think how much simpler it is, in a certain sense, to destroy electronic than physical traces. There's no need of inciting mass cooperation in book-burning enterprises. No need for secret police or raids or extensive surveillance. The power to remove a book from a device, to remove all traces of it from retailers' websites, to expunge it from a publisher's online record: It would simplify the work of a would-be Soviet Union or Oceania multifold, would it not? It's ugly. For all kinds of reasons.     
Read more here...

After reading these articles, I am now rethinking my conversion-in-progress towards ebookophilia. I still like the physical feel of books and do not like the idea of my books dying or disappearing. I cannot afford to buy both, the hardcopy and E-book version of each book, so I am probably going to stick to buying old-fashioned books for now.

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