Amazon Kindle, Books, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Pubs, GoogleBooks, Humor, Kindle, Marx, Marxism, Opinion, Politics, Project Gutenberg, Pub, Publishing, Revolution, Technological Determinism, Technology, Utopia
[SCENE: The Guildford Arms.]
Tychy: Here we are.
James [taking beer]: Cheers! Beautiful!
Tychy: That mobile phone is even bigger than my own. I thought that I was the only person left with a phone from the last century.
James: This is not a phone – it’s the Amazon Kindle. Behold the future!
Tychy: The future?
James: It holds 1500 books.
Tychy: If you live for another hundred years, you’ll never read 1500 books.
James: I have the complete works of Shakespeare on here. You could walk around Tesco with King Lear, you could cycle down Leith Walk in the company of Desdemona…
Tychy:… or sit on the toilet with Hamlet.
James: It contains a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, novels, newspapers, blogs… it’s like a library but without the human unpleasantness.
Tychy: Let me look at this thing…
James: Woah be careful with it! It’s like a new baby.
Tychy: It’s very flimsy. It lacks the clunky sturdiness of a microwave or a television. I could scratch these buttons off with my fingernail.
James [flinching]: Please! Careful!
Tychy: And reading from a bright grey screen! The strain! If you read this contraption all day, your eyes would ache like a monkey’s balls.
James: Ah! Be gentle with it!
Tychy: There’s a little flash of lightening every time you turn a page. If you tore through a book too quickly, you’d have an epileptic seizure. And there doesn’t seem to be page numbers… I suppose you have to fiddle and fidget in order to work your way around the books?
James: You as well? Why is everybody so cynical towards this thing? I recently saw a good cartoon in which two characters bicker about the Kindle, until eventually one rubs away the logo on the top to reveal the words “The Hitchhiker’s Guide.” Another of Science Fiction’s flapping pigeons is now baked in a pie for our consumption. Compared to the first televisions – or the Neanderthal sturdiness of the Walkman – this E-book seems a uniquely sophisticated pioneer. But amongst consumers there seems to be a default setting of cynicism – a sort of robotic conservatism – almost as if however wondrous the technology, we must not let the utopianism go to our heads. Like old women with a bottle of sherry, we have to go slowly, and take little nips, and tell each other not to overdo it. Remain stoical in the digital age!
Every article I’ve seen about the Kindle repeats the obligatory caveat, “well, of course, we shouldn’t get too excited about this,” as if rhetorically leashing our minds so that they don’t run off wild. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones remains furiously underwhelmed by the Kindle, and an October poll of Guardian readers found that just over 20% wanted to buy one, leading the pollster to quip “Is your glass four-fifths empty or one-fifth full?”
Ever since I bought the Kindle, I’ve nightly had the same dream. We are all trapped in a prison cell, until I suddenly discover that the door is wide open. I am crying at everybody, “are you blind? the door is open? let’s go!” But there are just despondent shrugs
I suppose when it comes to books, you’re going to tell me that you love the smell of the paper, and that having to turn a book on and off makes you feel like something’s dancing on your grave, and that a third of your house is filled with books and what will you now do with all the free space…?
Tychy: More or less. But you are a Marxist technological determinist.
James: How can anyone of my generation not be?
Tychy: But you think that technology is far more important than culture, or rather that the former is the horse and the latter the cart.
James: I believe that although labour produces technology, it is then unexpectedly influenced in either liberating or oppressive ways by that technology.
Tychy: Well, we’re not in a student union. But on the question of format, there are millions of people who are uninterested in reading, and an incredible number who are illiterate. It will only be the aristocracy of readers – students and those involved in research – who will really benefit from all the paraphernalia of this integrated publishing. There will be a few people who will buy the Kindle just to wave it about in cocktail bars. And I suppose that a Marxist such as yourself is happily disposed towards one-party states. This thing is patently a monopoly…
Tychy: I’ve heard you complaining before about publishing chains which fix it so that the only books which end up on the supermarket shelves are biographies of X-Factor contestants and celebrity cookbooks. If Kindle wins the day, things will be even worse. Your “book” will be bombarding you with adverts, and it will be trying to sell you pay-per-view football rather than literature.
James: There are evident disadvantages to Amazon, and the company promises to become so powerful that it should really be nationalised. There are questions over the ownership of the books – they can only exist on the Kindle, so that it is rather like buying the house but renting the furniture – and if Amazon decides to terminate the project, then your whole digital library will go down with the ship.
The important thing is access to literature. Websites such as GoogleBooks and Project Gutenberg are making increasing numbers of once “lost” books now freely available – my research dissertation about Dr. William Maginn would scarcely have been possible without GoogleBooks – and there has emerged a powerful ethic of civic duty and public service, which is licensed only by the technology. Michael S. Hart, who founded Project Gutenberg as a volunteer movement, is more revolutionary than Lenin. Hart’s initial ambition was to make the 10,000 most popular classics available online by the end of the twentieth century. There are now over 28,000 books online. He wants to make 10 million books available by 2020. And with the Kindle, the books will become available everywhere and anywhere.
I’ve heard the historian William St. Clair remark that in Wordsworth’s lifetime,“For the price of one copy of The Excursion in quarto, a reader in Salisbury could have bought over a hundred fat pigs. Wordsworth’s own income from his writing was below 100 shillings (£5) a week for most of his life, and he could not easily have afforded to buy his own books.” Access to literature has always been an intensely political question – with cartels and copyright laws placing books out of the reach of most working people until well into the nineteenth century – and as Rupert Murdoch has recently complained, it is only through carelessness that so much of the internet is now freely available. Our privileges of access are very precious – they have at times been fought for as furiously as our democratic rights – and we should not take them for granted.
Tychy: But your utopia is one of deflated literary value. The consumer is so buried in literature that they are wearied by the thought of having to sort through it all and decide what is worthy. And modern letters is becoming something of an old folks’ home, full of inexpensive antiquated books. There are people who will only read books from the nineteenth century, of which there is now an inexhaustible and cheap supply. One could live entirely in 1832, and progress through the bestsellers of the day in real time. You, for example, will determinedly read the occasional, arbitrarily-selected, twenty-first century novel in the same way that an Asian woman is pointedly included in every BBC drama. Perhaps the reason that so few decent novels are presently being published is that the genre no longer has anything to do with the modern world…
James: Um, well I guess that there are exciting modern novels on the Kindle, but I don’t know what they’re called or who wrote them. But one senses that something is going on out there, somewhere…
Tychy: So there are more important things than format?
James: I think that we have established the contrary. It’s foolish to assume that anything other than the narrative itself is mere packaging. The fact that people are now unthinkingly referring to “old” books as objects of sentiment, rather than of practical necessity, demonstrates that the book already has one foot in the grave. Within a decade, the Atlantic Ocean will be filled with billions of unread novels – bobbing aimlessly down the Gulf Stream – a huge shoal of obsolete books.
Tychy: Is our website available on that contraption?
James: We presently need an American bank account.
Tychy: We have to pay people to read our website?
James: It’s possibly the other way around.
Tychy: Well, with proper feelings of trepidation, let us drink to the future.
Omnes: The future!