Yeah, they said all that about Gutenberg too

Okay, first off, Sherman Alexie has produced some wonderful novels and poetry, a lot of which I’ve enjoyed. So this is not about his talent or his place in the literary canon.

In addition, just like the rest of us, he is entitled to his opinions about stuff. So, I got no problem with him having a dog in the fight over technology and digital rights.

But goddamn it, he’s been pissing me with his ongoing rants about how e-books and Kindles are going to…going to… well, just wait! They’re going to do a LOT of things, a lot of BAD things, like for example: lead to illiteracy, widen the digital divide, increase digital piracy, wrest control of content from authors, bring about the downfall of book sellers and booksmellers alike. Also, they might — hell, they probablywill— hurt puppies. And somehow, the government might use your Kindle to get all up in your business. And Sherman Alexie is unhappy about this and wants to save us, even if we don’t want to be saved. Also, he is an Indian, so he’s right about this shit.

At a panel of authors speaking mainly to independent booksellers, Sherman Alexie, theNational Book Award-winning
author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” said he
refused to allow his novels to be made available in digital form. He
called the expensive reading devices “elitist” and declared that when
he saw a woman sitting on the plane with aKindle on his flight to New York, “I wanted to hit her.”

Yeah, he said that. As I see it, that quote is very telling. Even though he’s not “anti-technology” and “loves his iPod,” Alexie gets emotional about e-books. He is afraid of the changes they signal, he doesn’t like that they take away his supposed control of his work, and he thinks we should be “mourning” the loss of the immediacy and intimacy of actual storytelling. And that makes him want to hit things, like people.

So fine, if you want to be defensive and afraid and overwhelmed and sad and all elegiac-like, go on TV and let it all out. Oprah loves that shit. But don’t take all that, wrap it up in with a scattershot bunch of cherrypicked factoids, and pass it off as reason and truth.

I consider the Kindle elitist because it’s too expensive. I also consider
it elitist because, right now, one company is making all the rules. I
am also worried about Jeff Bezos’ comments about wanting to change the
way we read books. That’s rather imperial. Having grown up poor, I’m
also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between
rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about
this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering
that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to
change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure
that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the
country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have
access to Kindle?

Pretty much about the same time as the advent of the first digital book, educators and producers of assistive technologies have been figuring out how best to usee-books and devices in schools. In addition, there are a lots ofFREE online ebook libraries, and for that matter, has Mr. Alexie been to a public library recently? They have computers and the internet machine there now you know, and a number of brick and mortar libraries areloaning outKindles (and other ebook readers), withAmazon’s legal blessing. Libraries can “de-register” the machines so borrowers can’t use them purchase books on the taxpayer dime.

I’m not saying the transition to e-books is seamless or even that there is agreement about it, or that Alexie is wrong to be concerned about real threats, but a great deal of discussion, online and off, regarding the topic focuses on the potential of the technology for democratizing access, much like movable type did in the 17th century, rather than limiting it. I find it hard to believe Alexie isn’t aware of this.

I am not some kind of Kindle champion. Hell I don’t even own, or particularly want, one. It just pisses me off when talented people whose work I admire, like Sherman Alexie, act stupid and unaware of just how self-contradictory they sound. Like he did last night on Colbert:

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The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c Sherman Alexie
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor U.S. Speedskating

24 thoughts on “Yeah, they said all that about Gutenberg too

  1. I had to make sure I expressly told my folks I do NOT want a Kindle or similar for xmas – I’m a ‘real book’ gal – I can’t even deal with ‘books on tape/c.d.’. It’s just how I’m wired. I’m not against them, but I’m not into them. If I fall asleep after reading and my paperback falls off the bed…no worries. A couple of hundred dollar doohdah hurtles over the edge and it’s time for tears.
    That’s just me.

  2. Oh, great. Now, not only do I have to worry about screaming babies and box-cutter wielding terrorists on my next flight, I also have to worry about some anti-elitist elitist whacking me in the face because I *dare* read my Kindle on the plane instead of carting around the six pounds of books and magazines I *used* to have to carry on the plane.
    For a bright person, he’s awfully stupid. Dude, I don’t need you saving me from anything.
    And for the record, I love the smell of my Kindle, too.

  3. And another thing–I’m baffled by the binary aspect of the pro/anti-Kindle argument. Just because I own a Kindle doesn’t mean I don’t still buy and read hard copy books. You don’t give up your right to love the look, feel, and smell of “real” books when you buy an e-book reader. And, incidentally, as e-books make inroads into colleges and universities, they’re actually making it cheaper for students to get their textbooks. When a standard textbook in print form runs around $100, it doesn’t take very many classes to make up the cost of the Kindle. Pretty much the antithesis of elitist.
    It’s just a tool, Sherman. And no, I don’t mean the kind of tool you are.

  4. Also, Buggy, there’s an argument to be made that digital music and books actually increase consumption.
    And the black/white thing is kind of what pisses me off. “I don’t like them, they’re bad, here’s a bunch of stuff I pulled out of my butt to prove that I’m right.”

  5. I’m not necessarily opposed to e-books but I am very much opposed to the Kindle and any other proprietary “reading” device. But I’d have to get into the absurd state of our copyright laws to explain further and who wants that?
    Oh, and who wants to attend a good ol’ fashioned Kindle burning? Where’s the tradition in that?

  6. “Oh, and who wants to attend a good ol’ fashioned Kindle burning? Where’s the tradition in that?”
    Not to rain on your irony parade, spork (can I play the tuba?), but that’s one key reason I actually think the Kindle (by which I mean any e-book reader–there are several besides the Kindle out there or in the works) is a good thing–it’s awfully hard to control information in the digital age. Yes–a book or a pamphlet can be burned, but the digital version of that book can be redistributed instantly. Imagine Solzhenitsyn in the age of digital books.
    Incidentally, there are far more non-Amazon books on my Kindle than there are Amazon books. Thank you, Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks and Manybooks. Another good argument for the non-elitism–the collection of books I got for free on my Kindle (because they’re out of copyright) would have cost me, minimally, $300. Dickens, Austen, Poe, Machiavelli, Gibbon, Dante, Boccaccio, Keats, Shelley…

  7. My heart bleeds for the poor kids who can’t afford a E-book device. After all they now just flock to the bookstores to pay $20 for a paperback book to read, so that pleasure will be denied to them. I think what we really should do is outlaw libraries that don’t require you to pay book authors every time you check out a book. That would really help the poor children.
    I don’t have a Kindle, but I hope to get a Nook for Christmas. (No, not nookie! I can spell.)

  8. Aw, dammit. I hate it when people I like say stupid shit like this. I adore Sherman Alexie’s writing. I also adore my Kindle. Absolutely adore it. Didn’t want one, didn’t ask for one, but my husband got it for my last birthday and now I’m a believer. Thought I was a real-book purist, and it turns out I’m not. I totally heart my Kindle, and if Sherman Alexie sees me with it on the plane, he can kiss my elitist ass.

  9. Elitists never see themselves as elitists, just trend setters. I’m just saying…
    I do not have one of those kindle-thingeys. I prefer to check books from the library or to buy them used on Amazon or even better, in musty old bookstores where you peruse for hours. For me it’s a way of spending a morning or afternoon. Sometimes you’re rewarded, sometimes not. One thing about the digital revolution that worries me personally: I have about 50 to 60 books next to my bed. Some belong to me, some are borrowed from either the library or friends, most are used but a few are new. Before I bring a book home and put it in that pile, I do stop and consider the size of that pile. I can see having a Kindle with hundreds if not thousands of books on it, all waiting to be read. Maybe some of you are more disciplined readers than am I. How will I go about choosing my next book to read? Oy! I’m getting a headache worrying about it. My closest friend loves her Kindle, but she limits it to travel because she can take a dozen or so books with her without having to physically carry a dozen or so books, but she’s disciplined. I’m not. I saw Mr. Alexie being interviewed. He may have just been looking for a way to differentiate himself from the pack. If I’d have been interviewing him, I’d have asked him how he feels about books on tape?

  10. i took about 6 books to denmark to last 3 weeks. sure, i did leave the caligula and the collected hitchhikers there, but it was not that hard to pack them.
    all hail the PRINTED word. jeez, wuthering height was a downer.

  11. I keep looking at the Kindle, then at my bulging bookshelves of O’Reilly technical tomes (most in need of newer, revised editions) and think how nice it would be to carry that entire library in a cargo pocket.
    But if I can’t get everything I need for the Kindle, then it won’t help me. I’m still an inveterate page flipper and couldn’t see giving up my paper library, but when I’m lying on my back staring up and under cables in the server room, a Kindle sure sounds nice.

  12. BuggyQ –
    As we learned last Summer Amazon – or whomever – can “enter” your reading device and simply delete books. It’s also obvious that if, say, a court orders unsold (and the key here is “unsold”) books to be pulped there’s every expectation they could also order Amazon – or whomever – to delete all the copies on e-readers. E-books could also be “altered” for any reason from afar.
    When you buy a paper book it’s yours (you can even give it away or re-sell it!) When you spend money on an e-book you’re merely purchasing a license to read it at the copyright holder’s pleasure.
    Nobody who knows me would ever call me a Luddite but I’m siding with Alexie on this one.

  13. Also, if there’s a major, long lasting power outage (and given the state of our infrastructure there could be) you can always read a book by daylight or candlelight.
    The Kindle, not so much.
    Also also, it strikes me as appropriate that “Kindle” sound an awful lot like “kindling”.

  14. The argument Alexie’s making here is actually one I’ve heard made and made myself with regard to the newspaper debate. That it ignores the very real digital divide in this country to say the future is online and online only. A lot more people have a buck for the paper than have $200 for the Kindle or an iPhone or whatever we’re supposed to be turning papers into these days. This is a media problem of course; if all your kids and all your friends’ kids have iPhones you’re gonna think all kids have iPhones.
    That being said, it’s not Amazon’s responsibility in the entire to solve poverty in this country, and you can use a tool for many tasks. Just because it’s not immediately egalitarian doesn’t mean it won’t be.
    Mr. A wants a Nook for Xmas. I can’t get past the name. It’s what my goddaughter called a pacifier.

  15. A, I’m not saying Alexie is misguided to worry about those issues. Access/the digital divide is a real issue, as is the security/privacy issue.
    I’m saying he’s a lousy steward for those concerns- his arguments – and I’ve read/seen four or five- are emotional rants and it’s clear (to me) he can’t get his own ego/emotion out of the way to make a good case for them. So, imho, he just comes off like a WATB, rather than a force of reason.

  16. I’m with Spork. Speaking as someone who creates intellectual property for a living, mostly under work-for-hire agreements, I get really tetchy about the kind of thing we saw with Amazon this past summer. I am really nervous about this new business model the corporatocrats are pushing, whereby you never actuallyown anything, you justlicense it indefinitely. The difference is like the difference between a right and a privilege — privileges can be revoked at any time, unilaterally, and don’t apply universally. If I pay money for something, I don’t want to wake up one morning and find that the company I thought I “bought” it from has unilaterally decided I don’t have the right to access the content I paid for anymore.
    I’m also leery of DRM-enabled electronic content delivery devices for two reasons: First of all, what if Icreate content and the device doesn’t recognise me as a “legitimate” copyright holder, even though I am, so I’m not able to use my own content I created on my own digital device? (This was a legitimate concern about Windows Vista in the early going, as I recall, and the DRM scheme was yanked and significantly modified in response to user disapproval.)
    Secondly, I live in Canada. Our copyright laws are different here: For one thing, I pay a hefty levy on all blank media (CDs, DVDs, tapes, etc.) to the Canadian version of the RIAA (SOCAN) in order to purchase the right to copy things freely from one medium to another et cetera, paid in advance.
    I don’t want to be forced to adhere to the frankly draconian US copyright laws through some kind of shrinkwrap/clickthrough EULA or something, you know, the usual boilerplate like “This content is provided in accordance with the laws of the State of Delaware,” or whatever. Screw that. I don’t think those EULAs are even enforceable half the time, but I’d really rather not go through something like the Jon Johansen case (where the US government decided that a Norwegian computer programmmer should go to jail in the US for doing something legal in Norway that was illegal in the US, simply because it fucked with the DMCA) to prove it legally, thank you.
    Anybody who’s been following electronic intellectual property stuff for as long as I have has got a lot of good reasons to be really, really chary.

  17. As a librarian, I get this a lot from administrators who want to cut budgets versus patrons who point out that reading speed and comprehension slows online.
    And free online book repositories, like Guttenberg, tend to have items which are no longer under copyright – do you want your physicians using 80 year old textbooks?
    Of course, I remember the arguments from 20 years ago that microfische was gonna replace books.

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  19. Fascinating conversation. Interrobang: didn’t know that difference in Canadian vs. American law. Very insightful and informative. That’s a good direction to consider. I want singers, bands, writers, and all other participants whose work is routinely expropriated to get a kick-back. I’ve never wanted to get rich off of any one person, but if everyone in the world gave me a penny to hear my song, read my poem, laugh at my YouTube video, etc., I’d be more than satisfied. If newspapers are going to be saved, they’re going to have to figure out a way for us to give them that penny.

  20. The toughest indian in the world has the reservation blues over a little ol kindle. Maybe he should challange kindle to a fist fight in heaven.

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