Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Who reads books anyway?

With such high-profile literary folk in the publishing industry offering their opinions on the digital revolution and how it will affect publishing, being just as cool as they are, naturally, I feel obligated to offer my own two cents. Jonathan Lyons wonders if Kindle will kill publishing, Nathan Bransford muses on the E-Book era and Celeste Fine offers Steve Jobs her thoughts on the perfect E-Reader. So what do I have to say about the matter?

The future is digital and no one needed me to tell you that. Movie rental stores will be a thing of the past sooner than later, I still raise my eyebrows at the small percentage that actually buys CD’s considering iTunes doesn't involve leaving your house and only cost$9.99 Even interactive games--an inherent technologically advanced industry--has seen large success with downloadable content.

That said, I can’t believe that DVD’s, CD’s, or physical software disk will truly go away in my lifetime. After all, vinyl records still have their niche (even that makes me wonder about the advent of the eight track…) I believe there will always be a need for physical books, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kindle. It’s all the rage: taking a lot of flak and perhaps garnering even more praise; let me add to the flak. While digital is the future Kindle is not. It’s the first attempt--a very good first attempt, but a first nonetheless. Do you remember the first iPod, the original Nintendo DS, or, dare I say, the first cellular phone? Yeah, well, most people don’t either because the manufacturers of those products have done all they can to make the public forget. Consumer electronics go through phases and hardware is updated regularly. Kindle’s first problem has nothing to do with its capabilities or perceived weaknesses, rather the fact that it’s just not cool.

Sounds shallow doesn’t it? Imagine you’re on a metro city train and you see two people sitting next to each other, one with an iPod Touch, and the other with a Kindle. You also notice a creepy, twitching, Amy Winehouse looking girl that you could swear is going to snatch something and run as soon as the train stops and the door opens. Which do you think she’s gonna grab?

The Kindle will get better and who knows, one day it may grace the threshold of, “cool.” But I doubt it, because cool is defined by a generation that doesn’t really buy books. (Sadly, I’m speaking of my own generation. I don’t have any figures or demographics to back this up but I’m willing to bet the average book buyer is not aged 18-35 and if anyone has info to prove me wrong I’m open to seeing it, and would in fact would welcome the opportunity.)

So since Kindle will never be cool--and the decline of interest in reading in today’s ‘youth’ is so well documented that I won’t harp on it here--who is Kindle, an expensive consumer electronic device, marketed to?

My grandmother, in her middle seventies, reads a lot. She will never buy a Kindle. If I bought her one she wouldn’t use it. She will always have a ‘book’ in hand when she reads. My mother, whose age I’m not allowed to mention, goes through about fifteen books a year in her book club and probably twice as many on her own. (If only I had that much time dedicated to reading; oh yeah, that’s right, I have a job.) She, nor any of her book club members, will ever buy a Kindle. It’s not that they’re all technologically challenged but Southerners become easily set in their ways and as a Southerner I don’t say this as a flaw. She’s not going to change for any of this new-fangled-Kindle nonsense, nor any other half-witted gadgetry. She is a book buyer.

As for me and my generation; as I’ve already said we--sadly--don’t read many books. When we do, it’s an event, something to talk about over dinner: “I just finished this new novel,” pretentious jerk ‘A’ says to impress ditzy girl ‘B,’ pausing after the comment to sip his merlot. (Actually that guy might be inclined to buy a Kindle…) When you’re not dealing with that crowd it actually gets worse.

There’s me. Chad Hull. I like books. I like them so much I own four--an all-time low--that I haven’t even read yet. I like the way they feel in my hands, the smell of the paper and all that other tacky sounding stuff. (And no I don’t take sunset walks or play fetch with Fido, my Cocker Spaniel, on the beach.) Specifically I like hardback books and I’ve even become the Master at buying them for less than seven dollars.

It should be noted that I’ve never handled a Kindle (and to those who have, how do you hold it without your thumbs hitting the page forward or page backward buttons?), but I know it can’t replicate my favorite aspect of reading. I have eighty pages left in Robert Graves, I, Claudius. (Just buy it, I promise it is more than worth your time and money regardless of your preferences in literature. Thanks for the suggestion Wanye!) Much as I like finishing a great book I love nothing more than starting a new one. I can see the pages dwindling down and I can quite literally feel the book’s progress toward a climax. I have no doubt Kindle tells you that you’re on page 388 of 468 but it’s not the same. And what’s to come of all my affection and lusty feelings for a physical book? Furthermore, am I the only person that thinks it would be cool to have a library--with actual books and not a hard drive or catalog of SD cards--in my house? Wait, scratch that. I referenced myself and buying a house at the same time, just ask Maura and she’ll explain that humor to you.

In each of the three generations I outlined there will be exceptions, but reading for pleasure is becoming a dying hobby. If you offer today’s sixteen year old $350 for a Kindle or an XBOX, I think their choice would be clear to all of us.

It only took me a little more than a thousand words to say this, but in part due to Kindle, reading a novel and reading a book are no longer the same thing.

I won't go so far as to say, Kindle = FAIL, but I will say that Kindle Version 1.0 for $350 is a pretty high price for so much EPIC FAIL.

For what it’s worth, I plan on refuting my argument and all points made very shortly…


jivey said...

Well, you just obliterated my lifelong wish to name my first-born Kindle. Instead I will name him/her Epic Fail Ivey.

Anonymous said...

reading sucks. i couldn'e even make it through this whole blog.


Chad Hull said...

Hightower = FAIL!

Anonymous said...

Hull = UHHHH!

Anonymous said...

I like what you say. How could I not, since I agree with you heartily?

Only, what the hell's a Kindle?


Ben Neill said...

Chad - we should do a poll of all the current KINDLE owners, inquiring them of their wine of choice. What would you like to wager that the majority drink that atrocious MERLOT with which I wouldn’t wish upon my fiercest enemy?