Reading by Kindlelight: Local perspectives on the end of books as we know them

Powell's Books; Sam Bowman

Powell's Books; Sam Bowman

The University of Chicago’s peculiar relationship with books can be traced to Robert Maynard Hutchins. The University’s fifth president, it was Hutchins who instituted a Great Books class, the forerunner to today’s Core curriculum. Also under Hutchins’s watch, the UofC joined with Encyclopedia Britannica to market an unevenly selected set of Great Books to the general public (no Jane Austen in sight, but Christian Huygens’s “Treatise on Light” was available.) Hutchins saw bringing classic texts to the general public as more than a nice marketing idea. As Alex Beam writes in “A Great Idea at the Time,” his recent history of the ultimately doomed sales venture, Hutchins believed that “using the Great Books to ‘revive the great tradition of liberal human thought’ can result in nothing less than ‘a world republic of law and justice.’”

Though Hutchins’s vision of a book-fed utopia seems distant now, there’s no doubting the literary legacy he left in Hyde Park. Though the Core has been loosened, the University still has its students read many of Hutchins’s Great Books. The University of Chicago Press is the nation’s largest university press, and the campus is surrounded by bookstores. Writers like Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag studied here. Most recently, the school is building the new Mansueto Library with a view towards keeping books on campus in an era when many institutions are digitizing their libraries.

Yet Gutenberg’s invention finds itself under considerable stress these days. Leading the charge against printed books is Amazon’s Kindle, a sort of iPod for books. Thin and sleek, the Kindle boasts the convenience of holding hundreds of books at a fraction of the weight as well as the cost–most Kindle titles sell for $9.99. Rhapsodizing about the Kindle recently in the online magazine Slate, Jacob Weisberg said with not a little glee that “printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.” This is intuitive enough in a culture that has produced Wikipedia and iTunes. But what would life after printed books look like? Do we lose more than bookshelves if literature becomes a digital medium?

One thing is certain: the Kindle spells bad news for the major publishing houses, as it gives Amazon the potential to become both the dominant bookseller, allowing for significant price control, as well as something of a monopolistic publisher. (Amazon has already published a Kindle-only Stephen King novel.) “The publishing industry is already in such problems that any little thing can destabilize it,” says Brad Jonas, owner of Powell’s Books on 57th Street. Carol Kasper, Marketing Director at the University of Chicago Press, concurs: “All electronic publishing poses a problem” to conventional publishing.

While a literary scene freed of the big publishers may have a democratizing effect for authors, it’s just as likely that lower-quality books will proliferate. Jonas pointed to the music industry, a useful metaphor when pondering the book’s future. Record labels, he said, helped young musicians capitalize on their talent. Publishing houses, with their teams of editors, have a similar function. The result, said Jonas, may be a market full of authors “who don’t know how to take advantage of it.” Additionally, as many publishers have moved in recent years towards what Jonas calls “frontloading” books–looking to make quick profits from single titles, rather than cultivating an author’s back catalogue–he suspects there will be a rise in self-publishing, especially through blogs.

Kasper, at the UofC Press, agrees. “There’s a whole community behind the scenes that does the editorial work,” she says. “How would that be translated?” Kasper says this network of editors is particularly essential to academic publishing, where peer reviews ensure accuracy and strengthen authors’ arguments. Professor Amy Kass, a senior lecturer in the Humanities Division at the University and the author of numerous books, said she usually argues with her editors over changes. “I often concede,” she said.

The Kindle also raises the possibility (though a distant one) that Amazon may one day have an unprecedented monopoly as publisher. Since it would likely deal exclusively in electronic texts, booksellers would suffer–if they haven’t already perished at the hands of the Internet. This possibility is “a real concern,” said Jack Cella, general manager of the Seminary Co-Op, Hyde Park’s venerable academic bookstore. “When you get as much power in one company’s hands, these monopolistic tendencies often come out,” he said. Jonas, at Powell’s, sees less of a threat in this area, citing reverted rights, in which a publisher’s contract with an author expires, leaving it open for other publishers. Barnes & Noble’s publishing imprint, for example, is built around reverted rights.

The Kindle; Richard Masoner/flickr

The Kindle; Richard Masoner/flickr

To cope with the Kindle, most large publishers have made their catalogs available for the device. According to Kasper, the University of Chicago Press has contributed about 500 titles to the Kindle program. Ranging in subject matter from economics to the Renaissance, Kasper said the Press’s Kindle titles were largely chosen because they were already in an electronic format. Sales have been small–in the thousands of dollars, said Kasper, though she said this is in part because Kindle is such a new device.

Amy Kass has taught at the University of Chicago for more than 30 years. She has also taught at Johns Hopkins, St. John’s, and Georgetown, and now spends most of her time in Washington, DC, where she is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. She thinks the Internet has had deleterious effects on students’ reading habits. And, in a request that she says stunned her family, she has asked for a Kindle for her birthday. This doesn’t mean that Kass wants to see books disappear. She says a Kindle would simply be convenient for her frequent travel schedule. (According to Kasper, most Kindle sales have been to commuters. The student population, she said, prefers to do its electronic reading on computers or on iPhones, which now feature a Kindle application).

Indeed, Kass says she will continue to read actual books at home. She likes the geography of books, the way she can remember on which side of a page a particular quote is located. Cella and Jonas have similar responses to physical books. A book, says Cella, is still “a pretty handy and convenient” means of getting information. When the printed word switched from scrolls to pages, Jonas says, it was a big advance. Digital printing has reverted to the scroll model, which is less intuitive.

Kass has seen the effects of digitization in her classroom. “What I see is that our students, like everyone else, are influenced by the general culture, which is not a book culture,” she said. For instance, Kass is currently teaching an undergraduate course on George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” At around 500 dense pages, reading the book in five weeks, as Kass asks her students to do, is no small task. She says she doesn’t recall having to tell her students to be sure to finish when she first taught this class more than a decade ago. But this time around, she has given numerous reminders, and doesn’t think anyone in the class has finished yet. She thinks computers have something to do with it. What’s more, she thinks contemporary students have less patience for sustained, close reading. The Kindle, with its ability to switch between books instantaneously, likely won’t discourage this trend. “It’s like flipping television channels,” Kass said. Cella echoed Kass’s concern: “On the one hand, the idea of a Borgesian library at your fingertips is great, but on the other, does it encourage close reading?”

Jonas recalls the days when professors would come into Powell’s on a daily basis to see what was new. This has largely stopped, and Jonas fears the loss of one of the benefits of browsing–the unexpected find, walking out of a bookstore with a first edition found in a far corner of the store. “If that’s true in Hyde Park, if the academics of Hyde Park aren’t coming in stores,” it’s true of the rest of the nation, Jonas said. “Most of the good stores around Harvard are gone, most of the good stores around Berkeley are gone …I don’t want to say that the medium is the message, but without a part of the medium, you lose some of the message.”

Jack Cella doesn’t think the Kindle spells the end of the printed book. Either way, paper-and-glue books won’t disappear over night. Still, the erosion of book culture can be seen, and Cella says it will take a conscious effort to reverse the trend. “It depends whether publishers, booksellers, and readers are willing to think about what they value in the current form of books,” he said. This may not reassure book lovers, as our culture’s trend toward digitalization often feels inexorable. But perhaps comfort can be taken from the music industry, of all places. After nearly two decades of almost-obsolescence, vinyl records enjoyed a jump in sales in 2008.

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