“Once Upon a Time There Were Books”

And so began my theatrical experience of Toy Story 3.  Luckily, these words were not uttered in the film itself but in the ads preceding the previews; nevertheless, they struck fear into my heart.  Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the v.reader, an e-reader for kids. A kinder-Kindle.

The company VTech has begun manufacturing an e-reader specifically for 3 to 7-year-olds.  Now, I have no problem with the existence of such a thing as a learning tool and, indeed, this is largely how VTech is marketing their product.  They are promoting it as a great way to teach children to read.  I’m all for that but naturally I have a few reservations about these electronic tutors.  The idea behind the v.reader is nothing new; LeapFrog has been around for years with its interactive LeapPad learning system, which never caused me a moment’s unrest–though why a parent can’t take the time to sit down with their child and read with them is beyond me.  It is the notion that this electronic tablet is supplanting books that disturbs me so deeply, that companies are now telling children that books are a thing of the past.  The fear that this could come to pass is ultimately what fuels my hatred of e-readers of any kind.

It has been brought to my attention that I do these devices a disservice in my hasty dismissal of their merits, but frankly I am loath to give them a fair chance.  Does this make me narrow-minded or stuck in the past? Perhaps.  But I am not yet ready to face the possibility of a world without books, or at least books that don’t require a power outlet.  I made mention in my first post how the mere aesthetic of books is one I hold dear.  How can I include an inscription or trace a novel’s history through margin notes made by various hands if it exists as a downloadable file?  With technology as it is, there probably is a way, but it seems less personal to me in electronic translation.  Beyond these arguably superficial qualms, however, I feel an entire culture of books being threatened.

The eradication of books means the eradication of bookstores and libraries, two of my favorite places to be.  Just yesterday a story was featured on NPR entitled, “Stanford Ushers in the Age of Bookless Libraries,” and discussed how the university was  eliminating most of its engineering books in favor of putting its extensive collection online (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128361395 ).  I understand the merits of a searchable catalogue of material and arguments of limited space, but I worry about the trend extending beyond the walls of academia. If there are no books in libraries, will there still be storytimes, author visits, and other book-related activities commonly found there?

Similarly, the same questions can be asked of how such a thing will effect bookstores, where authors, book clubs, and release parties have a happy home.  I worked for 3 years in an independent children’s bookstore and have seen the effects of online retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, on small business.  It is nearly impossible to compete with extensive catalogues and discounted prices these sites possess.  Add virtual “hardcover” books to the list for $10 and the future of bookshops looks bleak indeed.  An article by Ken Auletta addressing the impact of ebooks on the publishing industry was recently featured in The New Yorker (“Publish or Perish,” April 26, 2010 issue) and is worth a read if you can find it.  In it, he looks at minds behind Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad, Google Editions, and various publishing houses.  Much of what the article has to say, I found unsettling: “‘Don’t forget,’ the chief of a publishing house said, ‘Bezos [C.E.O. of Amazon] has declared that the physical book and bookstore are dead.'”

On the other hand, it is no secret the the publishing industry has been struggling for years now and these gadgets have increased sales of backlist titles and classics tremendously.  I cannot completely write off anything that encourages reading and aids the publishers, whatever reservations I have.  Auletta’s article also mentions the efforts of publishers to instate more just and sustainable pricing for downloads of an author’s work, which I found comforting; but as publishers take on the role of sellers and online stores that of agent, bookstores, book reps, and literary agents do take a hit, as does the notion that you can walk into a store and engage in a conversation with a knowledgeable bookseller. The loss of that community and resource would be a great tragedy.

So, for now I will continue my refusal to ride the city bus bearing an advertisement for the Kindle, just as I will let the e-reader bandwagon pass me by.  And in the midst of this debate, Andrew Bird’s words run through my head, “Just don’t let the human factor fail to be a factor at all.”

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