In the digital era of books, I’ve come to the conclusion I have to distinguish between books and the ideas they convey. The book as an object is important, but sometimes only the ideas books, magazines, and newspapers convey are important.
I have a collection of first editions and books I consider valuable and irreplaceable. I wouldn’t give up my Masereel first edition of Mein Studenbuch, My 1910 non-serial, Handyman edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, or my complete collection of original Flair Magazines published by Fleur Cowles for anything in the world. These books anchor my library and ground me. As Alberto Manguel claims in his essay My Library:
“Setting up a library after many years of change is akin to writing an autobiography. The order, the atmosphere, the titles that have survived moves, thefts, acts of God, oblivion in the hands of absent-minded friends, trace the pattern of something that resembles our life.”
But the ephemera that I read daily also creates a hypertext of my life. Some of those books, blogs, short stories, newspapers, magazines, and poems are just as important as my collection of first editions, but not all of them are worth keeping. I’m slowly embracing the importance of ebooks and digital readers as a way to lessen my dependence on paper as I fully embrace my need for information and new ideas.
My morning ritual of reading my ephemera on a kindle is as important to me as my cup of coffee. These ebooks have a different value for me. I’m willing to pay for them, but I have no interest in keeping them. Just like the piled papers that came before them, these files are worth reading and then they are easily discarded. But the implications of ereaders are huge.
Overall ereaders and ebooks will have a democratizing effect on the heretofore elitist and insular world of publishing.
Ebooks will allow us to express our thoughts and convey them to others without the arbiters of style first anointing these ideas as acceptable for mass consumption. But they will also create an onslaught of writing that perhaps I’m best protected from.
Just as the search engine has provided us the opportunity to discover things we did not know, ebooks will allow us to read things we never would have read before. And just as search engines have made us question “truths” and “evidence”, ebooks will make us question books and publishing.
Editors will always be important, but will large publishers? I can go to any used bookstore and pick out hundreds of books that never should have been published, so how will it be different? Well my hope is that ebooks will shift power from huge conglomerates and return it to small publishers, excellent editors, and incredible unknown writers.
But I am a realist. The democratizing effect of epublishing will expand the amount of “published” documents, but it may not improve the overall quality of writing at first. The first use of ebook self-publishing mechanisms will be a replacement of the “vanity press”. Why publish a book and invest in inventory when you can go straight to readers?
So the onus of preserving quality, and promoting great literature will now fall to the ebook companies and e-reader makers.
They will have to design workshopping systems, editing forums, and methods for identifying quality in ebooks (these companies are well on their way to identifying commercial value).
They will do all of this if they want their devices to remain valuable tools for navigating a digital library.