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Book Love

Leaves are falling, temperatures are dropping, and t-shirts and lemonade are being replaced with sweaters and hot tea. Autumn is officially here. As the season changes and milder climates call for more indoor activities, book lovers everywhere are rejoicing. But is traditional book love — the smells of old pages, tattered bookmarks, and the cracking of newly bound book spines being replaced with electronic gadgets?

Kindle is a software and hardware platform developed and marketed by for reading electronic books and other digital media. As Kindle users grow in numbers, many are wondering how these gadgets are affecting not only readers, but the publishing world, book sellers, libraries, and other traditional book spaces. Jim Millot of Publishers Weekly writes, “Just over 72% of publishers taking part in a survey on the impact of digitization on book publishing said the development of new business models, new multimedia products and effective marketing strategies are the biggest challenges facing publishers as they make the transition from print to digital.”

While many claim that Kindle is introducing the love of reading to new audiences, others complain that it’s quickly destroying the fabric of the book world and creating an authoritarian type readership. In July of this year, Kindle users were stunned when Amazon remotely deleted digital copies of George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm from their devices. This was done after learning that the electronic publisher of these works, MobileReference, did not have the rights to them. Amazon also angered many customers after a problem in the company’s sales-ranking feature led to the inadvertent de-ranking of hundreds of gay and lesbian books. Although Amazon apologized for both mistakes, many were outraged at what they think is quickly becoming a new form of “book control.”

David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times writes, “Much of the talk about the digital future has to do with its inevitability, but though that may be true, it overlooks more subtle questions of engagement and control. For Amazon, books are a business, and the more hegemony it exerts over the market, the better off it is. For the culture, though, books and information serve as a collective soul, a memory bank, something bigger than mere commerce that shouldn’t be merely bought and sold.”

Independent book sellers (already feeling the pressure from book chains and online sellers) are especially feeling left in the dust. Author Sherman Alexie, best known for his books The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Indian Killer, remarked at a recent book expo that he is concerned how e-books are eliminating the viability of independent community bookstores. On his website he writes, “A book is a physical object that takes up space in your life. It has presence. One must take account of it on a minute-by-minute basis. Right now, in fact, as I type this post, I can see five bookshelves in my house (and am aware there a few dozen other shelves I cannot see from where I’m sitting). That’s a few thousand pounds of books. That’s permanent. If one keeps their library (or increasing amounts of their library) on an electronic device, don’t those books lose physical presence? Don’t they, by definition, become easily erased, forgotten, archived in the electronic closet?”

While organizations such as The Open Book Alliance are pushing to assert that any mass book digitization and publishing effort be open and competitive, is feeling the competitive heat but the fire is coming from another corporate conglomerate. Google recently launched a new program that would enable publishers to sell digital versions of their newest books directly to consumers on any device with a web browser.

For many the touch and smell of a bound book remains the only way to read, American poet and writer Elizabeth Bishop famously wrote, “Open the book. The gilt rubs off the edges of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.”  And while this remains true for legions of readers, others are embracing electronic readers with the same vigor and verve.

How do the new models affect not only publishers, and readers but small book owners and libraries? Is this the future of reading? What do you think about classroom teachers using digital readers in place of traditional books? How can independent booksellers compete in this kind of market? Is there room in a democracy for the kinds of corporate practices being touted by Do you prefer a digital reading device or traditional books? What are the positives behind this new trend in reading?

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