Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Digital Books: Not There Yet

I moved a lot of books this weekend. Literally. With my hands, I placed nearly a thousand books back on the bookshelves in our study at home, following the completion of a remodeling project. For three weeks, the books were stored in various boxes and bags in the study underneath a giant tarp, in the boys' room blocking access to one of our son's beds, and around the recliner, barring access to its more lazy-man functions. But they're all back on the bookshelves, dusted, alphabetized, ready to be read again.

That's a lot of bulk, you say. A lot of work. A lot of dead trees. True, true, and true. But I look at that collection of books (and imagine what the room will look like when the rest of the collection can join them following the re-carpeting) and I get all smug.


Because of this.

Ah, the Amazon Kindle. Supposed to be that game-changer. Gone is the day when people have to be shackled to printed books when they can load all the books they want into the Kindle to read at their leisure, no longer tied to the library or the home library or cheap novels from which the ink leaches onto your fingers.

Until, of course, you've downloaded the books to too many devices and you're no longer allowed to download, thanks to the DRM books you bought and the download limits Amazon won't reveal.

Tell me this is better than a home library. I have books up there I can take off the shelf and read any time I want. They're as portable as the Kindle. If one breaks, I buy a new one. But it doesn't magically disappear after only three or six or the magic number of readings. It's still there, slowly mouldering, for years.

I understand the publisher/Amazon dilemma. One digital book, once purchased, could become a thousand digital books purchased only once if the DRM genie is let out of the bottle. As a budding authoir, I'm horrified at the thought of people being able to get something I publish for free. But then again I have to look where I buy most of my books -- used book stores, thrift stores, where people, tired of the books they've read, sell them so I can buy them again. Without the author getting a penny. Am I a hypocrite? You bet.

So what is real? A printed copy of a book is real, and there's nothing an author or publisher can do to forbid an owner, once the book is sold, from selling the book to another to read, or simply giving the book away. Many borrowed books are never returned, with the original lender either taking the situation as a zen moment that the book has left his life, or going to the store for another copy. But digital books, DRM-free, allow for the lending of books without the original ever leaving posession of the one who paid for it. There's a fundamental difference in fairness there, even in this unfair world.

If I had a solution, I'd be a savior. But I am no savior. I'm just a guy who likes to read books. Lots of them. And who will likely continue to buy the dead tree variety, because there's no limit on how often I can re-read them.

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