Filling the Market Void: Why the E-Reader is not the End of the World

Some of the more literary types in my life (I am an English major so there are a quite a few of these) have been lamenting the demise of the good-old-paper-book since the very first e-readers appeared on Christmas lists. I cannot assuage the material frets of such people (What will hipsters put in their wedding photos if not piles of old books?), and it does seem sort of inevitable that paper books will go the way of vinyl. But as a movement in literature (if not material aesthetics), the e-reader does not worry me as much as it does some, who say that the Kindle and the Nook aren’t only the demise of nice-looking books but the quality of writing and fiction in general, touting the mass of self-published books and the hypothetically lower standards of publishers and editors.

There will always be a world of literature that is distinguished from books written and sold purely for entertainment, just as there will always be films made that are distinct from Hallmark TV movies, even though the same medium is being used to create the two things. This is the world that I am commenting on. The distribution of entertainment has always been fairly automatic – whatever medium is most popular will be used to make the most profit. Yaay, capitalism. There probably isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with this, but it’s important to remember that the hordes of paperbacks on the shelves in Walmart are not the front-runners of what’s being published right now – the most currently popular art will not necessarily be the most enduring.

Any media change creates a market void, and this medium is going to change, which means that there’s going to be a new horde of mediocre (and bad) material produced. I think that society tends to judge media change as culture-killing (or satanic or elitist or antielitist or condemning adjective of the day) (this generally only applies to media changes brought on by those in a younger age cohort than the complainer) and point to the “clear evidence” of the new medium’s depravity: the slew of obviously artistically empty new entertainment. But the fact is that artistically empty (unedifying, depraved, what have you) entertainment is like a cultural given – it has and will always exist. But I think that [maybe not all but at least some] humans are never going to fail to be surprisingly and inspiringly creative.

One response to “Filling the Market Void: Why the E-Reader is not the End of the World

  1. When it comes to books, for me, there is no substitute for wandering through a bookstore and coming across a treasure you may never have found otherwise. But as much as I love my “traditional” books and would never want to give them up completely, I’m not opposed to e-readers. First of all, I do think that because of them, more people are able to read when they’re traveling, commuting, etc.–which may be the only time these people have time to read, and they can’t haul an 800 page book around with them.
    Most importantly, though, I think the people who are so opposed to e-readers are a little too obsessed with books as objects. To me, books are often beautiful, wonderful objects, but what truly matters most about them are the words and ideas contained in them, and these aren’t lost just because the books are in a different format.
    As for self-publishing, it’s existed since the time of Dickens and probably before that. And you’re right–there is still plenty of wonderful stuff to read out there amongst all the “artistically empty” entertainment. I don’t believe our society has as much to worry about on that front as some people think.

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