A reader writes:
I think the big point that's missing from the reader discussion of Franzen’s curmudgeonly gripes about ebooks is this: Format <> Medium. Yes, Kindle books are DRM'ed to hell and Apple's iBooks are terrible too, blah blah blah … but those aren't complaints about ebooks; they're complaints about specific formats or readers clumsily extrapolated to apply to the very notion of reading a book on something other than paper. If you'll permit me to be curmudgeonly as well, I think this is a bunch of poppycock.
If one insists on trying to assemble a comparison between democracy and ebooks, then I can win that debate with two words: Project Gutenberg.
This digital repository celebrated its fortieth birthday last year (yes, it's older than the Internet) and between it and its affiliates, the project hosts over 100,000 free books formatted to work on almost any e-reader available. Try walking into a book store and asking for a free copy of Don Quijote, the complete works of Shakespeare, or Mark Twain's essays. You'll get laughed out of the place. But all this and more is available DRM-free for anyone to read or share. That's democracy.
Another is on the same page:
I purchased a Kindle last year and struggled, at first, with acclimating to reading books on it. I missed the tactile feel of the book in my hands even as I acknowledged the great benefit of not having to carry a number of books with me on vacation. It was the excellent interface of iBooks that won me over. What I particularly enjoy are the thousands of public-domain texts available through the Gutenberg Project. Is it not more democratic to have easier access to some of the greatest works of literature and philosophy for free and legally? My children were reading a fantasy novel that featured Machiavelli as a character. They became interested in him, learned that he wrote a book titled The Prince, and then downloaded a public domain copy onto their Kindles for free. They’re 13 years old! I am also a college professor and I assign some of these classic texts for my classes. The costs are now much less for my students.
I am now a true convert. My only frustration is the lack of cross-platform compatibility, which is why I tend to use the Kindle app on my iPad rather than iBooks: I can read the book on more platforms (e.g., Kindle, iPad, iPod, computer). I still love the interface of iBooks though.
In the blogosphere, Razib Khan reminds Franzen that the reason we have so much ancient literature isn't because of paper:
Five to three thousand years ago cuneiform was state of the art. And if you want permanence, look no further. The tablet to the left dates to 2400 BC! With the decline in cuneiform there is something of a lacunae in our understanding and memory of the literary production of ancient societies. Scrolls of papyrus can certainly keep, but only under ideal conditions (e.g., very dry climates, such as Egypt). The codex, the technology which we know as the book, is more recent than the scroll. But it too relies on relatively perishable materials in comparison to cuneiform.
Carl Zimmer notes:
[Darwin] rushed out The Origin of Species in 1859 in a fit of desperation, his hand forced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s near-simultaneous discovery of evolution. Darwin was not terribly happy with how the book turned out, and so he continued to revise it for decades, churning out six editions all told. … And despite Darwin’s ebook-like compulsion to alter his own text, he still managed to establish the foundation of modern biology.