E-books, E-readers, and Freedom

Against the Cynic on E-books and E-readers

A word to those who don’t have an e-reader device: Why the heck don’t you have one? You don’t like books or something? E-readers or e-reading software applications for smartphones, tablets, laptops, and so on, are readily available in a hundred variations, for any budget.

“But I like my books on paper,” you object.

Yes, so do I. However, even aside from the most obvious advantage of an e-reader — why stick one book in your bag for that camping trip when you could stick three hundred books in there? — here are a few other serious considerations on the subject:

1. Almost every really important book ever written was written by a long-dead writer. That means practically everything you really must read before you die is long past copyright, and therefore available free of charge on websites like Project Gutenberg or Internet Archive, in e-book format. That is, you can have thousands of history’s great books in your own personal library, for free — and you can own this library even if you live in a studio apartment, a trailer, or the back of your van. Just think: You can amass The Complete Works of EVERYONE and fit the whole collection in a space roughly the size of one paperback book. It’s like reaching into your desk drawer and pulling out a tiny model of ancient Athens — with the real Socrates, Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Euripides living in it.

2. I resisted e-books for a long time, too, until I realized what this technology means from a practical political perspective: The age of the establishment vetting process on ideas is over, even if the old guards of that establishment are praying you won’t notice. I couldn’t begin to offer a complete list of all the important literature of past centuries that was self-published, often at starvation-inducing expense, by authors who were rejected or banished by the literary gatekeepers of their times. (Not to mention the probably far greater number of great ideas that never made it onto printed page at all, to our permanent loss.) Today, authors who have something to say that would likely receive similar treatment at the hands of corporate entities with a million perceived reasons for playing it safe on ideas and innovation, can simply say it digitally, and until the internet is utterly controlled by progressive authoritarians (a day that is coming, I grant you), these authors can distribute their ideas, virtually for free, to a potential audience of billions, rather than struggle to pay for a few hundred printed copies and then end up using half of them as heating fuel when they find they have no way of attracting readers without the support of an established publisher.

Likewise for the authors who had to squirm and kowtow to a patron, often an authoritarian patron, in order to get their words into print. We may be tempted to regard writers who would do such a thing as pathetic and dishonorable, but for men living in an age when gatekeepers of one sort or another determined the entire fate of one’s years of thought, toil, and sacrifice, such a price was understandable. Today, I can write a book expressing ideas that directly challenge the entire intellectual and moral status quo of our time on numerous levels, and, once again, until they filter me out of the internet entirely, I can get my ideas out there on a level that the authors of bygone centuries never could.

“Doesn’t this open the floodgates to the publication and dissemination of a lot of trash, wind, and foul odors in the name of literature?” you ask. Yes it does. But, to put it politely, have you seen the bestseller lists of the big publishers lately? Why do we assume private citizens vetting with their own minds will necessarily do a worse job than the self-appointed experts of the “traditional” publishing world? By analogy, it seems to me that every four years, Americans are wedged and duped by the political experts of the two major parties into settling for presidential candidates far less serious, principled, intelligent, and statesmanlike than either party’s grassroots would have nominated, if ever those ordinary citizens were allowed to do it their own way, without the vetting and propagandizing of their alleged superiors in Washington. (And no, by the way, 2016 is no exception to that analogy; on the contrary, it is the summit achievement in the American political establishment’s subversion of the republic.)

3. It’s happening, folks, whether you acknowledge it or not. You can keep your LP collection, but CDs arrived, and very quickly made record stores all but obsolete, with very few new recordings being pressed to vinyl at all. Now even CDs are going the way of the dodo. One may not think every technological upgrade is for the better — a dubious assumption at best — but there is no denying that digital books are gradually replacing paper books as the standard. How this will affect the literary world of the future, or the fate of mankind should our technology give way somehow or other, is a very important question. But asking that question is not a magic conduit to a past world. We have to live in this one, for better or worse.

E-books are, for many of us, less pleasant to hold and smell than old paper books. But they are an unprecedented boon to non-traditional publishing, and especially to authors of serious ideas who no longer have to submit themselves to someone else’s interests to have a chance of reaching their appropriate audience. They can simply write the best book possible, convert it into digital formats, and then invite the good readers to come and sample their wares.

A real marketplace of ideas, as we should have. An agora.