At a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I watched with bewilderment as a novelist I admire declared, without apparent irony, that "The Kindle is evil." It should have been easy to ignore so foolish a statement, but this author was scarcely alone in expressing antipathy for Amazon's popular electronic book. A table in the Green Room, with a slightly forbidding "Reserved for Amazon Kindle" sign, sat unoccupied, and was the object of much free-floating scorn and fear.
Since then, I've been thinking about the hysteria that I continue to encounter from otherwise sensible writers when the subject turns to Kindles. The literary world has always had its Luddites - we're famous for them, in fact. We embrace them. (Writers who write longhand always proudly advertise this fact.)
Take Sven Birkerts, the justly respected author and critic. In 2007, well after blogs and bloggers had entered the mainstream, he fretted about the web's "libidinally undifferentiated miasma of yearnings and gratifications" in the Boston Globe. And just a few months ago, in an essay in The Atlantic entitled "Resisting the Kindle," he worried that "as Wikipedia is to information, so will the Kindle become to literature ..."
I'm not unsympathetic to some of Birkert's concerns - there is much to fret about with regard to diminishing attention spans and contextual awareness, and, as the owner of a considerable library of cloth, paper and glue, I need no convincing about the beauty and value of the book.
But authors screaming about the Kindle - well that's just plain stupid. There's no other word for it.
And here's why: The old models of publishing are dying. There's not a single writer I speak to who isn't terrified about where his or her audience is to be found. We're all morosely aware of a critical mass of factors including fewer review outlets, more published books than ever before, less available shelf space, strapped advertising budgets, and dispiriting sales as consumers move to other entertainment outlets. So what rational reason could a writer offer for closing such a potentially rich avenue for reaching his or her next reader?
Odious as the tobacco companies are, they were highly effective in their relentless pursuit of "replacement smokers." (Remember "Joe Camel"?) They hooked their next generation of customers by going to where young people could be found and repackaging their product to make it appealing.
I think we can all agree that hooking young people on literature is a considerably more laudable goal, and so it seems absurdly self-destructive for any author to cut himself off from a generation that doesn't share our romanticism about paper, a generation that is entirely content receiving information electronically.
And speaking of odious, it's not as though Amazon is beyond criticism - any publisher will tell you that their business practices border on the predatory. (Their recent plan to pay bloggers only 30% on Kindle blog subscriptions is a fairly standard example of their thievery.) But if I had a teenager whom I wanted to read more, I would buy that teenager a Kindle or a Sony Reader or any other suitable e-book and offer a generous monthly book allowance that the kid could use to purchase whatever caught her fancy. Do the words "the quality of mercy is not strained" mean anything different to those reading this essay on their iPhones? Of course not.
This isn't a zero sum game, and I would have thought that these otherwise subtle writers would understand that. The acceptance of the inevitability of the electronic book does not herald the death of the book we all grew up with.
There will always be people who prefer the emotional attachment of owning actual books, or people who want to read in the bath, or people who like leaving paperbacks behind in airplane seat-back pockets. On the other hand - having moved ten times in as many years - I can't pretend I haven't at least fantasized about a single box, into which I chuck my Kindle and go.
Of course, I'll still love my library, love sitting amid my shelves, poking randomly through titles I haven't considered in years. But the destiny of the book lies not in satisfying Luddites, curmudgeons and romantics, but rather in introducing a new generation of readers into the joys of literature and making sure that those words we spend all those years in lonely rooms writing will find as many readers as humanly - or digitally - possible.
Mark Sarvas is the author of the novel "Harry, Revised," just released in paperback - but sadly, not yet on the Kindle.
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