With the E-Book Revolution, Quantity Overthrows Quality

There’s no denying it: the e-book revolution has hit at full force. From kids lugging trash bags full of shamelessly discounted books out of post-apocalyptic Borders’, to marketing companies luring customers onto email lists with empty promises of free e-books, the evidence is everywhere. The e-book is here to stay, and it’s become increasingly clear that for those in the literary industry, it’s “join or die.”

I’ve always had a very romantic relationship with my books. As most codex sentimentalists agree, there’s nothing like that euphoric feeling of peeling open a brand new book, breathing in that intoxicating crisp paper smell, and marking it up to make it your own. I can flip to a page in almost any title on my bookshelf and become instantly overcome with nostalgia: wedged between my pages of JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man are grains of sand from the time I lay out with new friends on a secluded beach in Mexico; inside my copy of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita are hidden notes and pictures my friend left for me when she borrowed it; scribbled on first couple pages of Naked Lunch is a poem someone special wrote for me when giving it to me as a gift. Then there are book signings, and beautiful cover art, and striking up a conversation with an intriguing stranger based on the book you “couldn’t help but notice” they were reading.

That aside, after hearing enough hype from elated e-reader owners, I decided to suck it up and give this e-book thing a fair chance. After all, I’m all for saving trees, and I recall many agonizing nights when I lay in bed with unbearable back pain, cursing my professors for making me carry so many heavy textbooks at once. So I checked out my roommate’s new Kindle 2 to see what the fuss was about.

When I switched the device on, I was greeted by advertisements from Amazon.com, along with a welcome letter personally signed by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com. It concluded with a heartfelt wish: “We hope you’ll quickly forget you’re reading on an advanced wireless device and instead be transported into that mental realm readers love, where the outside world dissolves, leaving only the author’s stories, words, and ideas. Thank you and happy reading.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to forget you’re on an advanced wireless device when your reading experience requires so much effort. The first thing I noticed, after jumping to a collection of short stories by Roald Dahl (which I own in print), was an array of typos, not present in the paperback edition. O’s became 0′s; punctuation marks were misused; instead of her “mouth,” Claude’s mother opened her “mou1361″ to scream. Someone unfamiliar with the text would’ve thought the poor old guy wrote this story in a late night drunken blog post.

Up until now, people have devoted their lives’ work to editing and formatting books, to maintain the integrity of the writing and make it as easy to read as possible. But, cheap prices being a major appeal of e-books, the companies (i.e. Google & Amazon) initially responsible for digitizing public domain texts opt for less costly, albeit poorly edited, volumes, to draw in customers with discounted or free texts.

“Google has done a disservice to these works and their readers,” Joseph Esposito, member of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, writes. ”Free is a terrible price, as many readers will flock to these free editions — not knowing that other things are not equal — bypassing the edited volumes prepared by scrupulous publishers.”

As if this sloppy butchering of the author’s original words wasn’t degrading enough, Kindle encourages its owners to use features such as “Read-to-me,” where a sort of middle-European sounding robot mispronounces the words aloud, requiring the least possible level of  engagement with the text. Kindle also offers 3G wireless, begging users to take internet breaks throughout their reading, and even has a Social Networks feature that allows readers to post passages from their e-book directly onto friends’ Facebook or Twitter pages.

In the NY Times article “Does the Brain Like E-Books?”, UC Irvine Professor Gloria Mark writes, “My own research shows that people are continually distracted when working with digital information. They switch simple activities an average of every three minutes (e.g. reading email or IM) and switch projects about every 10 and a half minutes. It’s just not possible to engage in deep thought about a topic when we’re switching so rapidly.”

At a cost of $139.00, the newest Kindle can hold up to 1,500 e-books, each of which can be wirelessly downloaded in under 60 seconds. I shudder to think what happens when the Kindle is lost or broken, but the appeal is definitely there. The fact that e-books have officially become the more popular form of reading shows that in this age of free downloads, rampant ADHD, and a need for instant gratification, even literature is now valued based on price and quantity over quality. Yes, E-Readers allow owners to carry entire libraries in their pockets, but sadly at the cost of cheapening each individual piece of literature.

Authors today are faced with the tough decision of sacrificing the integrity of their writing by means of haphazard digitization, or losing massive sales by excluding their work from the closed ecosystem of the devout e-book reader. Those who purchase e-readers tend to buy mostly e-books, and many of those e-books are bought based solely on cheapness (many authors suffer the consequences of one-star reviews due to indignant shoppers who believe that they are overcharging).

Personally, I value my leisurely reading as an escape from the technology-gorged world that dominates the rest of my existence, but to each his own. Whether or not the paper book will live on eternally, only time will tell. I can only hope that regardless of preferred medium, readers continue to savor and value literary works the way in which the author intended, and that books do not devolve into low-grade, pirated mp3s on an ipod shuffle.

Julia Dawidowicz [TNGG Boston] I'm a recent Suffolk University graduate facing the bittersweet, often hilarious consequences of following my heart and majoring in Creative Writing. While a great deal of my time is spent fantasizing, reading, or writing about living in another place, time, or dimension, I do find certain pleasures in today's world, such as discount airline companies and chai lattes. I also enjoy eavesdropping on strangers and competitive pizza-making.

View all posts by Julia Dawidowicz

13 Responses to “With the E-Book Revolution, Quantity Overthrows Quality”

  1. Barnaby Willis

    You’re right! We can’t let the same thing that happened with the music industry happen to the literary industry! The digital age is ruining the integrity of art! Humanity is becoming lazier and lazier!!! Burn all kindles!!!

    Reply
  2. Angela Stefano

    While I certainly get the appeal of an e-reader in the same way I get the appeal of an iPod (good for long trips, convenience), I still buy CDs and records, and I still buy books. Part of the reason is because I simply don’t read enough to desire to have a queue stored up just in case (not because I don’t like to but because I don’t have time!). Part of it is simply the nostalgic, real-book-on-real-paper feeling.

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  3. Valerie Yawien

    I never thought about the mental disengagement with the text that occurs with print vs whatever the hell a kindle is. Reading takes focus and commitment, not half assed skimming- what good will that do? Yes, convenience is great and all, but I agree with your points and ultimately believe that products such as these encourage excess and hoarding tendencies as opposed to the appreciation of the one and only.

    Reply
  4. Sam G Loot

    Stumbled upon this and I really dig the essay. Reminds me of why I love reading. I agree that the onslaught of the techno-toys could very well deteriorate the sanctity of the arts and ultimately defeat the purpose of self expression rendering creativity useless in a society where people develop nanosecond attention spans and don’t feel the desire to be gripped by lots of details and prefer to be spoon-fed what they can easily regurgitate back into meaningless sound bites for other boring people to approve or disapprove of… but maybe there’s more to it. Not everyone’s in it for the money. If the eBook becomes the standard for reading, which it very well may, things will need to change. Authors will have to stand up for their craft. Readers who respect every single word of a book as it is in its place will have to demand that their favorite books not be transformed into digital toilet paper. So while there are still people like you out there defending the sanctity of the written word we can hope for a better future for Nooks or Kindles or whatever the future holds (kinoodles?). And maybe some day when you’re reading you’ll find some more of those grains of sand that made you nostalgic, matted between your Kindle and its overpriced protective cover.

    Reply
  5. Howard

    I regret to say I don’t believe a single word of this misinformed and misguided article other than the frustration with typos.

    I guessed that I would have problems when I read “I’ve always had a very romantic relationship with my books”. I knew immediately that there would be no rational assessment or common sense ahead of me.

    This is all about the irrational and as she says ‘romantic’. And it starts with the criticism of the adverts and letter – though of course she doesn’t mention the fact that this is a version of the Kindle that is knowing bought by the user as an advertisement supported version! and thus cheaper.

    This is followed by a confusing and rather confused attack on Google and Amazon for putting ‘cheapness ahead of quality’. This assumes that it costs a lot of money to properly correct the kinds of typos she encountered. I dispute that thoroughly. A couple of hours by a decently educated 15 year old could fix all of these typos and be absorbed easily into wither of these company’s overheads. The vast majority of eBooks sold are in the 4-9 dollar range and that is not cheap considering the absence of paper, printing, distribution, margins etc.

    “Kindle encourages its owners to use features such as “Read-to-me,” where a sort of middle-European sounding robot is pronounces the words aloud,”
    This is absolute nonsense. The kindle gives this as an option, an additional functionality which is greatly appreciated by the blind.
    What kind of crass criticism is this ?

    Then she drags in some journalists convenient and self serving collection of flippant opinions from a series of professors talking about reading on PCs while other content is available and distracting. Clearly and evidently not referring to reading fiction on eReaders.

    Except reading on the Kindle in nothing like reading on a PC, and does not leave other content open and available for interruption and distraction. So much for that irrelevant red herring included solely to try to bolster a convenient personal prejudice.

    She tosses in, about the Kindle, “I shudder to think what happens when the Kindle is lost or broken” so she seems totally ignorant of the principles of backups, or of the Amazon cloud function. Why am I not surprised.

    I have to say that I find her next attack on ‘quantity’ of eBooks quite bizarre. I have visited several people I have known over the years who have a lifetimes collection of books on shelves throughout their house. Thousands of them. Yet I somehow don’t believe Ms Dawidowicz would accuse those people of cheapening the quality by having so many books. What kind of logic or rational point is this ?

    It is deeply sad (though also irritating) for me when I read these, quite common, rants against eBooks by people who have developed such an unbalanced emotional connection with paper books that they have lost all sense of proportion and all sense of value for the written word itself. They have become ‘fetishised’ to the actual physicality of paper so thoroughly that they appear totally unable to read exactly the same quality compositions on an eReader as they do on paper.

    I have half a lifetime of reading behind me. I started to buy eBooks through my iPhone more than 6 months ago. Since then I have read more than a dozen great reads on it from start to finish, without distraction, with great satisfaction. I will continue to do so on my iPhone and iPad and soon a second Kindle.

    What matters is the word. What matters is the story. What matters is the message. Becoming so dependent on the medium is a sad and unfortunate predicament. But it is a personal predicament that does not engulf the lives of many. Only a few and only of a generation soon to move on. Thank goodness.

    Reply
    • Bruce

      I’m one of those people with a collection of thousands of (genre) fiction in my basement. I admit that I bought most of them used and usually paid much less than half the cover price of a new book. I guess I must have done that “at the cost of cheapening each individual piece of literature”. And is it wrong for me to hope that some day, publishers and authors will drop the price of their backlist works which are now out of print in paper so that the backlist is priced comparable to the used paperback? With the ebook, the author and publisher get paid by every reader, but with the used book, they only get paid by the first reader.

      Amazon is not to blame for poorly proofread or poorly formatted books, the publisher is. Newer books should have fewer errors, as the book creation workflow is now generating both the ebook and print book at the same time. Many books, like the Roald Dahl book you mentioned, are victims of cheap publishers creating poor ebook editions straight from marginal OCR without proofreading. Complain to the publishing house, write a complaint to the CEO.

      If I could, I’d replace my entire collection with ebooks, and I would carry it around with me everywhere. When I can, and when it’s cheap enough, I’ve already started doing so. The only problem I have is that when you have so many books to choose from, it’s hard to decide what to read next. I’ll bet the ebook naysayers never have that problem when they’re out and about and find themselves stuck somewhere with a long wait.

      Reply
  6. RD

    Howard, you are correct. For some reason Julia goes out of her way to dislike something. I am an avid reader with a book collection in the thousands. I’ve switched to the Kindle 3 and will never go back. The ease of reading, the ability to switch books, the ability to notate and my favorite, the ability to look up a word while I’m reading, is far superior to paper. I have lost more than a few hard copy books either by lending them out, or spilling something on them or moving to new locations. With Amazon, I should never lose another book again.

    Reply
  7. Tom

    Haters, you all missed the point. This is not merely a commentary on eReaders, it’s a requiem for a world long gone. Godspeed, Julia, for reminding everyone that life was better in the days when you couldn’t fit anything else on your shelf because you had all 7 Harry Potter books and the Stieg Larsson trilogy in hardcover. When the Kindle takes over, I will personally miss paying fees to the library on overdue books that other people have read while on the toilet. And I mean, how am I ever gonna clumsily lose my page again if I’m reading on an eReader? It’s life’s little moments that count.
    (hah just messing around. fuck kindles, i’m going to bed with a real book tonight)

    Reply
  8. Thomas

    Howard’s response was cute and beautifully typical of the cretin-intellect responsible of the dry-rot of today’s citizen criticism. Luckily, his overly-defensive and long-winded word vomit included so many obvious inconsistencies, it would be unnecessary and overzealous to pay any serious attention to him.

    Dawidowicz’ work is substantial. Her article delivers a felicitous inspection on modern gadgetry and its assault on today’s society. Her youthful and vivacious tones are paradoxically attached to an archaic medium that is being shredded through the radical regime of cheap technology. Vast arrays of books that once stood along mahogany shelves are being thrown into cardboard boxes and hauled off to the curb; if the bounded book becomes extinct, a chunk of the reader’s intimacy with the text will diminish and disintegrate.

    Reply
  9. Vin Conte

    Good work Julia! I agree completely and you even went easy on the people taking away leisure activity of reading not to mention getting lost in Barnes & Noble for a couple of hours! The research you did on the barriers to get to your reading enjoyment (ie all the clutter and shameless e-mercials you must endure to start your or maintain reading) reinforces my thoughts that this is just another technology flawed money grab!

    Reply

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