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.

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