Saturday, August 24

It’s not a revolution without readers

Apple's iPad-fueled answer to Amazon's Kindle may transform publishing industry, but not without literature fans

For all the fuss that’s flared around the latest fad in Apple’s electronic arsenal, your lowly Luddite has always been suspicious of anything marketed as “revolutionary.” If any revolutions are brewing, it might be that of my decrepit wallet struggling to withstand the radical rise of impossibly costly technology. But while the modest miser in me shuns the painful price tag of the iPad, I cannot help but see the seeds of possibility planted by this new piece of technological novelty. And it has nothing necessarily to do with new grounds being broken, but everything to do with an artifact from our very distant past: literature.

Ages ago, when libraries were for books and words actually meant something, to read a book was to take part in a complex series of agents, publishers, printers and suppliers before the ramblings of an author wound up inked and bound, on paper in your hands. The texture, the thickness, the utter physicality of a paper book gave a sense of reality to otherwise intangible strings of thought ““ something concrete to lay your hands on, something real for which to pay the aforementioned middlemen. This natural process, however Byzantine, felt right. With the advent of the iPad, the remnants of those relic days might too be history.

Apple’s newfound interest in digital books should send a cautionary chill up the spines of bookmakers everywhere. If the soul-mongering machine that is the music industry is good for anything ““ it serves to show the capital-inclined just how ruinous new technology can be for tradition. Whenever something new comes up that expands consumer accessibility to a good or service, some things are bound to be flip-turned-upside-down.

That’s not to say that the literati is prone to following the latest trends. As of last year, digital books comprised an estimated 1.5 percent of consumer book sales in North America. There’s something infinitely cooler about holding in your hand a yellowed copy of some Hemingway or Proust ““ perhaps behind thick-rimmed lenses, shrouded in Parliament smoke ““ than a 25-centimeter tablet with pixels on a screen.

Still, the same could be said for vinyl over MP3; and yet how many haughty hipsters do we see amble through North Campus, lost in electronic, portable groans from Pitchfork Media’s latest garbage? Convenience is convenient, no matter how popular or inauthentic.

The case for the iPad as a book replacement is simple. It’s thin, it’s sleek, and it holds lots of books. Now, I won’t get the same kind of kick that I’d get by reading a physical copy of “The Satanic Bible” next to the Grace on Campus table, but at least I won’t be burdened by a 300-page weight. And the iBook’s applications’ knack for emulating the reading experience on the virtual plane might fit right in with today’s culture of simulacra. Consider also the ease with which to make a purchase. No longer must I sift through miles and aisles of manga fans and soccer moms to find my precious literature: I can download “Twilight” from the privacy of my own home.

The shift to this model of distribution would turn the industry on its head. It’s reasonably safe to assume that, given Apple’s marketing proclivity, competitors will up the ante and follow suit. Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader, though snubbed by every literate person I know, may find new customers in the wake of heightened competition. The need for printers, shippers and suppliers will be virtually eliminated, relegating them to the dustbins of history (like the mythical music storekeeper). Agents and editors might remain to please the ever-diminishing portion of readers who actually care about content, but as evinced by today’s fetish for user-generated content, people generally have bad taste.

Indeed, such a novel transition (forgive me) would allow authors to skip the middleman and place their works in the hands (or screens) of readers everywhere, directly. Soon you too can pretend that people care about what you have to say. But as we’ve seen with mass authorship of music, the vast majority of would-be auteurs, quite frankly, suck. Though some moderately tolerable musicians have made a name for themselves through virtual distribution, for every Kid Cudi and Drake there’s a thousand Stephenie Meyers waiting to be read.

And, of course, one cannot conjecture about digital distribution without mentioning the can of worms of Internet piracy. While the status of intellectual property as a commodity is an issue best left untouched by our consciences, the anger of the authors subject to virtual buccaneering is very much real. Soon enough the lovers of cheap (or rather, free) literature will follow their sonic counterparts: the musical marauders. I can imagine the likes of Chuck Palahniuk suing the unlettered teenagers that constitute his fan base, a la the eminent arbiters of justice for all, Metallica.

I cannot be certain that this prospective revolution is a good thing. In truth, I can’t be sure if this spectre is anything more than a harmless haunt. Withstanding all the mainstream junk that pollutes the paper market, literature is simply not in vogue. The iPad may turn out to be but another distraction from our literacy, and its competitors may just slip into anonymity. This revolution requires readers; I might be placing too much faith in people to read. It’s not like I read either.

If you think books are dead, e-mail Manalastas at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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