Battle of the books

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I don’t own an e-reader, but I understand why many people do. Over the past few years, the technology has become so streamlined that it’s now cheap to own a basic tablet and put thousands of titles in one lightweight device. You can take your entire library with you anywhere you go. The newest releases may cost $30 for a hardcover copy, but they may be $15 or less for your Kindle. Writers can publish their work on the electronic market and actually see a readership emerge, rather than trying to fight their way into the traditional publishing industry.

But for every person who adores their Nook or Kobo, there are others — myself included — who find the thought of a world without physical books to be a grim one indeed. I’m happy to embrace many of our modern innovations, but I am a hold-out in the realm of digital book ownership.

The e-book industry has some troubling issues that haven’t been worked out completely. When you buy a physical book, you own it. You can write in it, rip it up, lend it to a friend or sell it for whatever money you can get. This is not the case with conventional e-book purchases; depending on the Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions on your device, you may not technically own the book you’re reading — you’ve merely purchased a licence to read it. Your right to access could technically be revoked at any time if you breach the contract. While you can go without a heavy copy of your Biology 190 text, the DRM can make it virtually impossible for students to resell their electronic textbooks. Though digital copies are often cheaper to buy than brand-new books, they’re still not always affordable for low-income students.

On a larger scale, there are many examples that illustrate the disturbing implications of corporate ownership of information. Amazon came under fire in 2009 when the company remotely deleted thousands of copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindle devices after realizing that the version they’d released wasn’t properly licensed. While there was a legitimate reason for trying to recall the product — after all, they had accidentally breached copyright law — Amazon’s move left a sour taste in many mouths.

In the summer of 2012, a Nook owner noticed something odd about his digital copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace: every instance of the word “kindle” had been replaced with “nook.” The third-party publisher who had reformatted the book for Nook buyers had done a hasty find-and-replace — a dumb error, but one that shows just how easily an electronic publisher can control the content on their devices.

Furthermore, if it costs $99 right off the bat to read books, opportunities for education in impoverished areas where expensive electronics are not as easily accessible are effectively eliminated. And if a server is hacked or an account accidentally deleted, then your collection may be irretrievably lost.

This loss of knowledge isn’t limited to a freak error; it may have far-reaching implications for future generations. We can easily read books from the 11th century; however, 30-year-old records on zip drives and eight-inch floppy disks are too obsolete to read on modern computers. If all of our books end up on Kindles now, it’s immensely likely that the files will be inaccessible within a few decades.

Thankfully, I don’t think that e-readers and physical books are in a format war with one doomed to obscurity and the other completely taking over. Vinyl and CDs did not disappear when digital music became the norm; the industry changed, but it did not completely eliminate physical media. The competition between e-readers and physical books is more like a sibling rivalry, imbued with struggle but born of the same source.

Our knowledge base is increasingly being stored in a digital format; it is convenient, but it carries more of a burden than we may wish to admit. Without a physical book, it becomes even more imperative to take true ownership of one’s library and ensure its continued accessibility for generations to come.

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