Posted by: Paul A. Forsyth | January 23, 2013

E-readers, the Classics, and the Masses

I have nothing against e-readers. I do not own a tablet myself, but I have friends and co-workers who do, and they sing their praises. And I can see plenty of advantages. My sister’s fiance, Scott, recently acquired an e-reader, and he praises it to the skies; he says that he actually reads more books now than before he had his e-reader. Also, e-readers have been a boon for self-publishing authors.

Personally, I read plenty on my smart phone and my laptop. And I read print books. I don’t own an e-reader, but I could see that changing at some point. So, this is not a Luddite post against e-readers as technology.

Over at the League, J.L. Wall wrote a good post about big box bookstores and the way that they have made classics accessible to the masses. From that angle, the decline of book stores may have some unfortunate repercussions:

I still worry. Without the physical store, without the displays, the tables, the deals, the promise of no additional critical essays, what will guide a reader (no matter their age) to Herodotus, Thoreau, or Willa Cather outside a class syllabus? There’s great promise in the possibility of out-of-copyright works becoming more accessible to more readers than ever before—but there’s also danger in the thought that there will be nothing to guide a reader toward them by chance encounter, that they might come to smell even more of musty classroom learning than before.

Do read the whole thing.

Wall’s post put me in mind of a post by Seanan McGuire from 2011, about e-books and poverty (emphasis added):

It is sometimes difficult for me to truly articulate my reaction to people saying that print is dead. I don’t want to be labeled a luddite, or anti-ebook; I love my computer, I love my smartphone, and I love the fact that I have the internet in my pocket. The existence of ebooks means that people who can’t store physical books can have more to read. It means that hard-to-find and out of print material is becoming accessible again. I means that people who have arthritis, or weak wrists, or other physical disabilities that make reading physical books difficult, can read again, without worrying about physical pain. I love that ebooks exist.

This doesn’t change the part where, every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to “Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier,” what I hear, however unintentionally, is “Poor people don’t deserve to read.”

I don’t think this is malicious, and I don’t think it’s something we’re doing on purpose. I just think it’s difficult for us, on this side of the digital divide, to remember that there are people standing on the other side of what can seem like an impassable gorge, wondering if they’re going to be left behind. Right now, more than 20% of Americans do not have access to the internet. In case that seems like a low number, consider this: That’s one person in five. One person in five doesn’t have access to the internet. Of those who do have access, many have it via shared computers, or via public places like libraries, which allow public use of their machines. Not all of these people are living below the poverty line; some have voluntarily simplified their lives, and don’t see the need to add internet into the mix. But those people are not likely to be the majority.

Now. How many of these people do you think have access to an ebook reader?

For more on this topic, see David Rothman and Chris Meadows.

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