Thursday, February 2, 2012

E-books are not the end of democracy

Ben and I use this week's Scripps Howard column to consider recent comments by novelist Jonathan Franzen. Do e-books signal the end of democracy? My take.
Last year, I read "The Federalist Papers" for the first time. The book is a collection of 200-year-old newspaper essays from Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison -- Founding Fathers all -- explaining and defending the Constitution of the United States. I read almost none of it on paper.

Instead, I read the venerable document on these devices: a netbook, an iPhone, my iPad, a desktop computer and a Kindle. I took notes and made highlights, and many of the ideas I discovered and engaged in that book, on those devices, later became the basis for points I make in this weekly column.

According to Franzen, though, my experience is impossible. According to Franzen, I should've opted to use those devices to play "Angry Birds" instead.

When new technologies come along, old technologies are replaced. It's true that sometimes we lose something of value as a result. I've been an avid reader since I learned how to read; I love bookstores and I love having shelves of books. It makes me sad to see stores like Borders go out of business because times have changed.

Here's another truth: The rise of e-books has opened up worlds of opportunity for writers whose work didn't fit the templates of old-school publishers. A friend of mine, Justin Blessinger, self-published a comic novella at Amazon, because print publishers don't have much use for novellas. More famously, writer Amanda Hocking got rich selling her fantasy novels as e-books -- and only then was signed to a major publisher. Similar stories abound: Publishing has become more egalitarian, and democratic, thanks to e-books.

The Founders didn't need books, exactly, to break away from Britain and create the Constitution -- they needed the ideas contained in those books. E-books are just a new way to create and pass down those ideas.

They're doing the job quite well
I tried to avoid utopian-type talk in my take; Ben gives in to his dystopian side, basically suggesting us e-book readers will rue our proclivities when the revolution comes and electricity is denied the masses. Less darkly, he also notes that cloud-based reading puts readers at the mercy of the cloud providers. A good objection. Not, at this point, a fatal one for me.

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