Kindles, Books, and Half-hearted Endorsements of the New

Megan McArdle on the Kindle and the Book:

The Kindle was only released in November of 2007, just three-and-a-half years ago.  By 2009, Kindle book sales briefly surpassed print sales on the day after Christmas.  In July of 2010, the eBook format overtook hardcovers, and six months later, it surpassed paperbacks.

Today, according to Amazon, eBooks have surpassed print books entirely; they are selling more Kindle editions than they are selling from all of their print formats combined.  Since April 1st, they’ve sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 print editions.

She is not surprised and this is part of the reason why:

And like many Kindle owners, I’ve found that I buy more books than I used to.  The impulse purchases are now completely irresistible: I can have the new memoir about someone’s dead tax cheat of a husband right this instant, rather than waiting two whole days . . . by which time, I’ll have forgotten about the Washingtonian excerpt that made me want to read it.

Score another one for the frictionless life and disposable reality.

She concludes:

I’m pretty sure the print book’s days are numbered for anything except specialty applications.  The die-hards will cling for a while, but ultimately, book buyers are already an extremely affluent group, and the convenience in acquiring, porting, and storing your library simply overwhelms the drawbacks, especially as Amazon has introduced innovations like eBook lending.

But wait, there is a tinge of melancholy:

… it will change a lot of the dynamics of life for book people.  My first adult books were pulled from my parents’ giant trunk of mystery novels, and the shelves in their bedrooms–will there be a family Kindle account, and will they be able to control access to the juicy stuff?  Peter and I are already wondering if we shouldn’t merge our Amazon account, but do I really want my archives cluttered up with his comic books and movie tomes?  Does he want to have to scroll through a long line of trashy police procedurals?  What will happen to the pleasures of pulling a random book from the shelves of a home where you are a weekend guest?

Not too worry, it was only momentary:

They’ll be replaced by other pleasures, like instant gratification.  And it’s probably more gain than loss.

Or was it:

But I’m just a little bit sad, all the same.

Why do we feel compelled to ratify what are surely trivial pleasures, if pleasures at all, while suppressing our instinctive regret for the passing of deeper more substantives pleasures?  This is not an indictment of the Kindle, nor a defense of the book.  I’m just intrigued by the recurring “this is better, yes its better, it must be better it’s new and the old is passing, it must pass” feel that attaches to pieces like this.  Who exactly is being convinced?


H/T to Mr. Greenwald for passing the McArdle post along.

4 thoughts on “Kindles, Books, and Half-hearted Endorsements of the New

  1. Because new things are, of necessity, better than what came before. That’s the American discourse of progress, isn’t it? Newer, better, faster, cheaper.

    I, for one, am not convinced. I don’t pay as much attention to things I read from a screen and it’s harder to make margin comments.

    I wonder if the dramatic rise in eBook sales can at least partially be accounted for by people buying e-copies of some of the books in their pre-existing physical libraries. I know quite a few people, of the people I know who own eReaders, who have purchased e-copies of their favorite books even though they already own them. That way, if they’re on the train and wish they could read that great “bifurcated trousers of time” bit from that one Terry Pratchett novel, they don’t have to wait until they get home (or find it through Google) to do so.

    1. Good point. I was recently reading about the idea of “motivated reasoning,” the notion that while we think we reason like scientists (or the idealized scientists anyway), in fact we reason like lawyers trying to win our case. Perhaps this kind of reasoning is motivated by our commitment to progress discourse.

      Also a good point about multiple copies. It reminded me, in a tangential way, of a line I read somewhere recently about how a gentlemen (19th c. context) needed three copies of each book. One for the country house, one for personal use, and one to lend. But your anecdote does speak to a kind of habitual impatience that is a bit worrisome I think.

  2. I have a Kindle and I almost never leave home without it.

    It was a necessary purchase because I live in a city that does not have a decent bookstore. Before I got it, I would come home from travels with half of my suitcases filled with books. Those were sad days.

    I love my Kindle for many reasons. However, I only use it for leisure reading— mine is packed with classics and fiction. Anything that I need to understand and pay attention to has to be on paper.

    1. Sad and achy days I imagine. The Kindle has its uses, no doubt. I hope this post didn’t come off as an indictment of the Kindle.

      I’m on the same page with you (pun only retrospectively intended) as far as the preference for paper for more heavy reading, largely because I need to mark my texts by hand as part of my own process of comprehension.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment,


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