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Digital readers are good for you, like vitamins! So why don’t you have one, you loser?

October 20, 2010

Stephen King: a Kindle, an iPad, and mixed feelings.

If the mainstream media is covering politics the way it’s reporting the developing digital books story, then expect a Democratic landslide in November. Consider this highly, if inadvertently, misleading story in today’s USA Today.
Headlined “More bibliophiles get on the same page with digital readers,” it opens with persuasive anecdotes of people who say they are  reading more books thanks to their sexy and convenient e-reading devices, like Amazon’s Kindle. It’s not until deep into the long article we learn that “80 %” of Americans have no intention of a buying a digital reader.

This story, by Bob Minzesheimer, is a classic example of a reporter (and his editors) seduced by the power of a prevailing narrative — whether it’s true or not.

Minzesheimer no doubt would protest that the story, if you read the whole thing, is balanced, and he’d have a case. He reports evidence contrary to the major thesis — ebooks are close to vanquishing printed books –and offers anecdotes from people who say they still prefer a bound volume to a digital one. Well, one anecdote, at least.

But the headline, the lead, and the first 10 paragraphs –including a quote from Stephen King, who has both an iPad and a Kindle –trumpet the narrative of digital triumphalism. There’s a handy link, newbie tests  five e-readers, although the resulting story turns out to be no more than a description of the devices, like you’d find in a catalogue, with none of the useful comparison that you really want: Which of these things is best?

It all culminates with quotes from publishers Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins, and Peter Osnos, founder of PulblicAffairs Books.

Murray claims “a sea change,” averring that for some titles, “the e-books are outselling the hardcovers.” Osnos waxes poetic, making the triumph of digital books seem a technological and cultural inevitability, if not an evolutionary imperative, “in the same way that people moved from silent pictures to talking pictures to movie theaters to television to television-on-demand. We are adapting to the notion that we can choose where, when and how we read books.”

They should know, right?

It’s only after all this momentum has been built up for e-books that we are informed, oh, by the way, a Harris poll, conducted in August, revealed that 8% of Americans own e-readers, another 12% plan to buy one — but “80% say they’re not likely to do so.”

It’s only now, after we’ve been told how cool digital readers are, what nifty storage devices they are, and how they seduce people into reading more, that we finally get a quote from someone in favor of old-fashioned printed books–and, irony of ironies, it comes from Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Lunch, a digital newsletter.

The Harris poll numbers, Cader observes, “ratify that using devices for something (reading) that doesn’t require a device at all, and has worked perfectly well for centuries, may not be of obvious appeal to the bulk of readers.”

I’ll admit, as anyone who reads this blog even occasionally can attest, that I am a staunch member of the 80% that thinks printed books are an apex technology, unimprovable. Like Julie Meier, 41, of Beaver Falls, Pa., at the end of the day I’m sick of gazing at the basilisk’s eye of a computer screen. My eye longs for print, for paper, for something I can touch and smell.

Meier, by the way, is the sole anti-digital voice in the second half of Minzesheimer’s article, set against six anecdotes featuring ordinary folks who just love their Kindles, Nooks and iPads.

Thus is the news shaped by those who report it — not out of personal financial benefit or political leaning, but from a lack of time, willpower or presence of mind necessary to resist a prevailing narrative and get to the more awkward, hard-to-package truth behind it.

All this racket about the rise of digital readers, reports and editors think, whether they realize it or not —  it must be true!

It’s like a virus, and even the most independent-minded reader will eventually contract it, too. After seeing enough stories about how swell e-readers are, and how resistance is in the end futile, the staunchest book lover will eventually start to think maybe he or she should get one of the damned newfangled gadgets.

I don’t mean to be too hard on poor Minzesheimer, who, after all, has written a well-reported, nicely constructed, stylistically adroit story — providing you don’t notice how he’s succumbed to the subtext of e-reader triumphalism.

As evidence of his journalistic competence and good faith, let me acknowledge the worrisome quote from Stephen King at the very end of the article, who notes the ephemerality of e-books, which are “in a very real sense, not books at all.”

“Let’s just hope there won’t be a terrorist EMP (electromagnetic pulse) that’ll wipe them all out,” King says.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 6:28 pm

    You got to remember, it’s in the best interest of newspapers and magazines to promote eBook readers. Really, the best chance newspapers and magazines have of surviving is folks subscribing to them on their iPads, and I guess at some point, Kindles. So there’s certainly a lot of self-interest involved when any newspaper or magazine run articles pushing how wonderful these are.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 20, 2010 11:54 pm

      You’re probably right, Dave, but as a journalist I bristle when the sell is folded into a “news” story.

  2. October 24, 2010 9:42 am

    I’m firmly in the 80% and heartily sick of the digital hard-sell.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 27, 2010 12:12 am

      “Heartiy sick of the digital hard-sell” — aptly phrased. My feeling exactly.

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