Unbound is unbeatable

Saturday evening in my Poetic Lives Online column at The Rumpus, I cracked on Alex beam's piece in the Boston Globe about e-books, and I didn't exactly flesh out why I thought he was so wrong.

Beam starts with an interesting premise--one I support, by the way. Libraries should purchase (assuming they can't get companies to provide them for nothing) e-book readers and lend them out the way they do regular books. Perhaps not for two weeks, and perhaps not for nothing--I'd imagine the library would require at least a security deposit for such an pricey piece of equipment--but certainly libraries should expand their technological offerings when and where they can. And I'd hope that publishing companies would let libraries buy copies of e-books to load onto the readers--limited the same way that libraries have limited copies of paper books, of course.

But Beam's reasons for doing this are a bit odd, it seems to me.

Here is my secret agenda, and here is why I want libraries to hand out e-readers: because to know and use e-books is not necessarily to love them, not by a long shot.

Here is how a typical reader (me) comes to a book. A few weeks ago British historian Anthony Beevor, author of the un-putdownable “Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege," recommended the novels of Olivia Manning in the Wall Street Journal. You can’t get them on either the Kindle or the Sony Reader. Where did I get them? At my public library. In fact, none of the books I’ve read this month, e.g., Paul Torday’s amazing novel “Bordeaux" or Richard Holmes’s “Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage," is available at either e-store.

I have mandarin tastes, you say. Well mandarin this: Stephen King’s latest hit, “Under the Dome," Sarah Palin’s best-selling memoir, and the Harry Potter books also are not available for e-readers. (The King and Palin e-tomes will be sold starting Dec. 24.) Populist enough for you?
Beam's argument seems to me to be this--if you put e-books in people's hands for nothing through a library system, when they find they can't get everything they want, they'll go rushing back to the library and grab the dead tree version and everyone will be happy. Except the e-book makers, presumably.

Except that no one who goes to the public library is particularly surprised when the book they want is checked out, unless you're going for something a little esoteric (and then you may be surprised they have it at all, depending on where you live). Part of Beam's inability to see this probably stems from living in or near a big city, with a massive library system. If you live in a suburb, or gods forbid, a rural area, your library options are extremely limited, even today. E-books will revolutionize the way people in those areas can access literature, the same way the internet changed the way people in those areas were able to access information.

Here's my big prediction for when the e-book revolution will really take hold. The second that e-books become standard fare for school classrooms--and I'm talking about K-5 classes here--they'll rule the publishing world. Paper books will become fetish objects because the key emotional relationship between readers and paper books will have been broken. And as the Google book deal gets worked out and as more publishers iron out their contracts with backlist authors and new companies swoop in to snap up those as-yet unclaimed rights, there will be a larger (and cheaper) pool of available books to choose from.

I'll get a bit more ludicrous with my prediction here--my generation will be, for the most part, the cut-off point for e-book adoption. Some older people will go for it, but my generation, the first to have something approaching widespread access to home computers (and their dismal operating systems), the first to adopt cell phones as adults, and who drive the smart phone market now will be oldest group to really embrace reading on something other than paper. We're doing it already. Our grandkids (or kids, depending on when you got started) won't really know much of a difference, because they'll be carrying a pad to school instead of the oversized, vertebrae-crunching backpacks they lug around now.

And you can count on the e-readers in the schools bit, because there's crazy money to be made there, just as there was when schools started outfitting computer labs. Alex Beam might not like it, but the future is unbound.

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