The most widely repeated—and mocked—remark from this year’s BookExpo America is Sherman Alexie’s assertion that the Amazon Kindle is “elitist.” Paul Constant, reporting on BEA in the Stranger, gets Alexie to offer some additional thoughts about ebooks:
In an e-mail, Alexie lamented to me the potential loss of one of the great pleasures of book culture: “Have you ever fallen in love with somebody, a stranger, just because of the book they happened to be reading? And what about the recent awe of walking onto an airplane and seeing that forty or fifty people are reading the same Harry Potter novel? How many times have you talked to a stranger just because they happened to be reading a great book, an eccentric book, a book that you arrogantly thought that only you and the author and his or her mother had ever read?” That’s not possible with a Kindle, he notes. You can’t see what people are reading. “And then again, I wonder this: Do you think the e-book makers will ever design a machine that has a screen on the back that displays the digitized cover art of the book that is being read? Will that make me happy? Don’t know.”
I suspect Alexie’s real objection to ebooks is that they’re different from what he’s used to. “I’m middle-aged and set in my ways” isn’t much of an argument, though, so he’s using his creative skills to dream up other objections. Ebooks are elitist. They don’t have cover art. They’re on my damn lawn.
I empathize. I’ve raised some pretty silly objections to new technology myself over the years. (Electronic reference works? But it’s so much easier to just grab a book off a shelf! Besides, I like lugging 22-volume encyclopedias from house to house. And don’t give me that nonsense about ’embedded video’; if I want to watch something, I’ll turn on the TV…)
I actually think the idea of electronic book jackets is pretty cool. But Alexie hasn’t thought it all the way through. For one thing, not everybody wants the world to know what they’re reading (Lisa adds: not everybody wants strangers falling in love with them on airplanes, either).
As for me, if I’m paying for an extra display screen, I want control over what it displays, and once I’ve got that, there’s no reason why the “cover art” and the text have to match. Maybe I’m reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on this plane flight. But the book jacket I want you to see is this one:
And when I’m not advertising one of my own novels, I’d happily accept cash, or free ebooks, to pimp someone else’s product. If I put a Nike logo on the back of my Kindle in exchange for Amazon store credit, does that make me an elitist?