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Will E-Books Destroy the Democratizing Effects of Reading?

Could Abraham Lincoln have become president of the United States in a world in which poor children lack access to physical books?
September 21, 2011

Today Amazon announced that it is finally rolling out Kindle-compatible ebooks to public libraries in the U.S., a much-needed evolution of the dominant e-reading platform. But there’s a larger problem that this development fails to address, and it’s an issue exacerbated by every part of Amazon’s business model.

Andrew Carnegie’s decision to fund free libraries at the turn of the last century – like this one in Houston – was inspired by the belief that knowledge and education are public goods

Access to knowledge has long been seen as vital to the public interest – literally, in economic parlance, a “public good” – which is why libraries have always been supported through taxes and philanthropy. (Carnegie’s decision to fund 2,509 of them around the turn of the century being an especially notable example of this.)

I challenge anyone reading this to recall his or her earliest experiences with books – nearly all of which, I’m willing to bet, were second-hand, passed on by family members or purchased in that condition. Now consider that the eBook completely eliminates both the secondary book market and any control that libraries – i.e. the public – has over the copies of a text it has purchased.

Except under limited circumstances, eBooks cannot be loaned or resold. They cannot be gifted, nor discovered on a trip through the shelves of a friend or the local library. They cannot be re-bound and, unlike all the rediscovered works that literally gave birth to the Renaissance, they will not last for centuries. Indeed, publishers are already limiting the number of times a library can loan out an eBook to 26.

If the transition to eBooks is complete – and with libraries being among the most significant buyers of books, it now seems inevitable – the flexibility of book ownership will be gone forever. Knowledge, in as much as books represent it, will belong to someone else.

Worse yet, there is the problem of the e-reader itself. This issue may be resolved by falling prices of e-readers, but there remains the possibility that the demands of profitability will drive makers of e-readers to simply set a floor on the price they’re willing to charge for one and attempt to continually innovate toward tablet-like functionality in order to justify that price.

Unlike books, which are one of the few media that do not require a secondary external device for playback, e-books put additional barriers between readers and knowledge. Some of those barriers, as I’ve mentioned, consist of Digital Rights Management and other attempts to use intellectual property laws as a kind of rent-seeking, but others are more subtle.

One in five children in the U.S. lives below the poverty line, and those numbers are likely to increase as the world economy continues to work through a painful de-leveraging of accrued debt. In the past, the only thing a child needed to read a book was basic literacy, something that our public education system in theory still provides.

Imagine Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin, raised in poverty, self-taught from a small cache of books, being stymied in his early education by the lack of an e-reader. And there are countless other examples – in his biography, Bob Dylan recounts spending his first, penniless days in New York City lost in a friend’s library of classics, reading and re-reading the greatest poets of history as he found his own voice.

Sure, these are extreme examples, but it is undeniable that books have a democratizing effect on learning. They are inherently amenable to the frictionless dissemination of information. Durable and cheap to produce, to the point of disposability, their abundance, which we currently take for granted, has been a constant and invisible force for the creation of an informed citizenry.

So the question becomes: Do we want books to become subject to the ‘digital divide?’ Is that really wise, given the trajectory of the 21st century?

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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