The Kindle: A rant of sorts

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 09:  A reporter holds the ...
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I have just begun to catch up with some blog posts on The Amazon Kindle, Sherman Alexie, and the future of publishing.

I haven’t followed the kerfuffle in detail, but it started with this:

At a panel of authors speaking mainly to independent booksellers, Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award-winning author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” said he refused to allow his novels to be made available in digital form. He called the expensive reading devices “elitist” and declared that when he saw a woman sitting on the plane with a Kindle on his flight to New York, “I wanted to hit her.”

Ed Champion decided to get a better handle on exactly what Alexie meant and actual got a much more nuanced response.

Now, as a Kindle owner I am not offended by the term “elitist” because I am actually in favor of elitism when properly understood and because I understand that this is an expensive gadget. But I did find the claims interesting.  So I followed some links and tried to get a handle on the arguments.

Since I don’t work in publishing, and I am not an author, I am not going to speak to the larger issues of digital rights or the impact of e-books on writers income, etc. Instead, allow me a little rant from the consumer’s perspective.

First off, let me just say that I find this reaction very puzzling:

Why do you consider the Kindle “elitist?”

I consider the Kindle elitist because it’s too expensive. I also consider it elitist because, right now, one company is making all the rules. I am also worried about Jeff Bezos’ comments about wanting to change the way we read books. That’s rather imperial. Having grown up poor, I’m also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle?

For the sake of argument let’s grant him the price issue.  The only reason I own a Kindle is because it was a gift.  I get the it’s too expensive part.

But the rest of it seems bizarre to me.  Is Jeff Bezos required to figure out the socio-economic, political, and cultural ramifications of the Kindle?  The guy is trying to sell things.  And are you not allowed to build and sell technology unless you have a plan to insure poor kids have access to it?  This whole thing strikes me a caricature of politically correct thinking.  The Amazon Kindle is a threat to poor kids reading habits!!!! What?

This reads to me like a complex argument built to prop up an emotional reaction.  He likes old fashioned books – the Kindle and Amazon seems like a threat to that so he digs his feet in and says “No!”

Alexie seems unable to comprehend that the vast majority of people don’t think this way.  People don’t think about sweeping issue of how technology impacts society.  People think about what helps them or gives them joy.

I read a lot of books. I read books for pleasure, books for work, and books for personal growth.  I read magazines and newspapers too.  The Kindle makes reading more convenient because:

– I can carry a wide variety of books and magazines in one small lightweight device.

– My subscriptions follow me electronically and don’t pile up at home.

– If I need something to read I can get it instantly.

– I can make notes and add highlights (and now access those on the web).

Why is it hard for people to see this?  If you are heavy reader who travels very much at all the Kindle is a lifesaver.

I ride the bus, or take my scooter, to the office to work.  Only having to grab the Kindle is great.  It not only saves the pain in my shoulder that would be involved in carry all of this, and saves me the trouble of having to remember which books to grab, but I can even listen to some nice background music instead of the chatter and noise around me.

And what I find so hilarious is that Alexie’s complaints are elitism dressed up as egalitarianism.  Do you think poor kids give a crap about the socio-economic, political or cultural impact of e-books?  Of course, not.  Sure, maybe they struggle with wanting the latest gadget but not being able to afford it.  And those avid readers often wish they could afford to buy books instead of having to get them at the library, etc.

But the kind of issues Alexie raises are only thought about by those who are politically engaged and have the leisure time to contemplate the impact of consumer products on culture.  It is the same type of attitude that wants to shut down Wal-Mart because they would never consider shopping there. For certain people everything has a political angle and that has to be addressed.

And here is the thing.  I may disagree with some of the politics or cultural concerns and I may agree with some of them.  And, obviously, I think people have every right to voice their opinions and take action based on those opinions. Hate the Kindle?  Don’t buy one.  Want to try and convince others to do the same? Fine by me.

And if you work in the industry, or are impacted by it, I completely understand why you would voice concerns and take actions that you think are in the long term interest of your career and industry, etc.

But don’t expect everyone to think politics/culture/industry first.  Some of us just like reading books and any technology that makes that easier or improves the process is going to be popular.

And any strategy that doesn’t take this fact into consideration is doomed to failure in my opinion.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. I completely agree that it’s elitist. It’s also incredibly annoying. The fact that there’s a device in the world that is threatening my right to have books in print is absolutely horrendous. Go Sherman Alexie.

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