Should people who buy books online be forced to wear a big red “A”?

Maybe it’s part of my metabolism. I’d rather support local people working in a locally-owned bookstore than the bosses of a minimum-wage slave in a huge warehouse miles away.

Damn. If only it were that simple. There are an awful lot of local brick-and-mortar retailers who wouldn’t be around without those online sales and the digital ability to print-on-demand without having to invest in huge inventories.

But can an algorithm replace a neighbor for suggesting a book we might like? I don’t know about your history, but in my experience the computer makes recommendations based on some past purchases that may not be representative of my habits or current interest. I guess I need to spend more money online to train it. A few months ago I went to review a friend’s new book and was disqualified because I don’t spend enough money online, even though I’d purchased my copy [and several gift copies] through this online titan.

I recently read a piece on the fallout from Microsoft’s discontinuing its e-reader. Like many digital products, the price people pay is a licensing fee, not an ownership fee. Without that particular e-reader, people lost their libraries.

Leaving aside the issues of readability and tactile satisfaction for a moment, let’s look at the most significant impact of licensing books to read on your e-reader. They’re not yours. So I guess you get what you pay for. Your book-reading becomes a variation on movie viewing or radio listening. Having said that, if you’re willing to jump through a few electronic hoops on most platforms you can still lend your book to a friend. And like a “real” book, you can’t read it while they’ve got it. And also like a new book, a digital or audio book usually ensures that the author gets paid for their work.

Ah, licensing: the wave of the future that’s lapping at our keyboards today. Back in the dark ages of just a few years ago we used to buy our software. Now it’s licensed. While the NRA and gun manufacturers claim to be able to walk away from the assault weapon you’ve purchased, Microsoft and other high tech vendors extend their tentacles and monitors into your home. Don’t they, Alexa, Cortana or Siri? If Microsoft doesn’t like the content you’re creating with Windows 10, can they pull your license? Or can they subtly censor you through their daily security updates? If you’ve got the A-lady or one of her cousins in your house, ask her. Then let me know what she says.

And all of this leads me to a question – are those of us who like hardcopy newspapers and thumbed-over paper-based literature in the same place as those scribes and monks copying and illustrating books and bibles by hand when Gutenberg came along?

It might be time for me to start singing one of my hymns from long ago –

…your old road is rapidly agin’

Please get out of the new one

If you can’t lend a hand

For the times they are a changin’

-Bob Dylan, 1963

This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.

7 Comments on “Should people who buy books online be forced to wear a big red “A”?

  1. Jim. I’m not a convert to your point of view, rather I write to you in solidarity. I cherish my print books and am feeling the need to create a library of personal classics should they become obsolete one day ( heaven forbid!!!)

    • Keep on keepin’ on. My personal collection of words on paper has been gradually re-growing. I doubt if it’ll reach its previous size – I might die while I’m trying.

  2. Yes, the times have changed…e books are really convenient.

    • But still make it hard when you want to dog-ear a page.

  3. I don’t think all is lost, Jim. The paper versus kindle debate frequently arises at my workplace and my colleagues, even the younger ones, tell me nothing beats the tangible feel and smell of a new book. Kindles seem to be relegated to holidays but their convenience while travelling is always noted too! Coexistence seems to be the mode du jour but I think that it is really positive that peoples’ enjoyment of books – in whatever format- never seems to dissipate!

    • I hope you’re right, but you’re pre-supposing a degree of mass literacy in current alphabets. Is it possible that the age of emoji’s is upon us, taking us back to hieroglyphics only readable by a literate few, a priesthood of sorts?

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