When Walker Percy won the National Book Award, he was asked why the South has so many great writers. His response was deceivingly simple: because we lost the war. While I think the south's defeat in the Civil War certainly resonated for generations, when I am asked the same question (though under decidedly less auspicious circumstances) I generally refer to something Mr. Percy probably discounted: air conditioning.
Any Southern writer of a certain age will tell you that the reason we were first drawn to reading was not a grand passion for the written word or even above-average intelligence (though to be sure we all possess both) but because the local library was the only building in town that had central air conditioning. I can clearly trace my passion for reading back to the Jonesboro, Georgia, library, where for the first time in my life I had access to what seemed like an unlimited supply of books. This was where I discovered "Encyclopedia Brown" and "Nancy Drew," "Gone With the Wind" and "Rebecca." This was where I became inspired to be a writer.
The notion of a public library is a fairly new one. Prior to the Civil War, most libraries were either privately owned or housed in universities or churches. While we can rightfully thank Andrew Carnegie for helping bring libraries to the masses, Women's clubs started over seventy-five percent of our public libraries. These ladies understood that access to the written word equals access to opportunity. If there is still an American dream, reading is one of the bootstraps by which we can all pull ourselves up.
With this in mind, I have to wonder what Mr. Carnegie and the Women's clubs would think of eBook readers. On one hand, here is a device that can put a limitless supply of books at your fingertips. On the other hand, here is a device that is so expensive that only a select few can afford it. It seems to me that with digitized books, we are taking a giant leap into the past, when access to literature was available only to those of means.
The possibility of a new "reading class" isn't that far-fetched. If the great prognosticators are to be believed, we will be looking at a completely digitized book industry within the next ten to fifteen years. Understandably, publishers and booksellers are worried about their place in this future. As for me, I am worried about my readers.
According to the latest census statistics, the more affluent the members of a household, the more likely they are to own a computer. When income, race and education come into play, the percentage of people without a computer is cut by almost half. One can assume these skewed demographics translate to eBook readers. Minimum wage still trails behind the price of most paperbacks. Do we really expect a person who has to work roughly three and a half hours a day in order to earn the price of a hardcover book to shell out the money for an electronic reader?
Of course, as with any electronic device, prices on readers are bound to drop, but at what point does the cost of a reader become negligible enough to justify its purchase? Books are not like albums, where you can simply download and enjoy your favorite chapter and ignore the rest. iPods now cost between sixty and two hundred fifty dollars, but the device revolutionized how we purchase and listen to music. I don't think many can argue that an eBook reader does the same for books--they have replaced a printed page with a digital one--but, barring the technological leap, can we honestly tell ourselves that just as many people are interested in reading books as are listening to music? Anyone with a teenager in their home can attest to that folly.
If we are in the middle of a publishing revolution, I have a few questions. Primarily, which books are we going to offer people who cannot afford readers? That seems to be the Sophie's Choice looming on the horizon. Surely, even with an eBook in every pot, there are still going to be actual paper books in the marketplace. Who wants to bet only a certain type of author will be on offer to paper book buyers? Who wants to bet that education, race, and economics will play an even larger role in deciding who has access to certain types of books?
More importantly, who is going to control access to these books? Digitization represent a boon to censors. How easy will it be for a school district or state to simply wipe out the existence of a book they deem too provocative? Can you imagine what would happen to classics such as "Huck Finn" and "The Catcher in the Rye" if eradicating them from existence was as easy as deleting a file? What is going to happen to these works if we no longer have them on our shelves, in our closets, hidden under our beds? What sort of chasm will be opened up by this Brave New World of digital publishing?
As much as we would like to deny it, reading is not vital to human survival. We won't die if we stop reading. The earth will not stop spinning if publishers fall. Reading is exercise for our brains in the guise of pleasure. Books give us insight into other people, other cultures. They make us laugh. They make us think. If they are really good, they make us believe that we are better for having read them. You don't read a book--you experience it. Every story opens up a new world. My only worry is that I'm not sure how much longer a lot of people are going to be able to afford the price of admission.
The New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, Slaughter's latest bestseller is "Undone" and her next novel, "Broken," will be published by the Delacorte Press on June 22nd.