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Social Aspects of Books (and Ebooks)

Here’s another piece by Cory Doctorow on the publishing industry and google. Familiar stuff to those already aquainted with his writings on copyright, but he finishes the essay with a point about the social aspects of books:

This pincer movement is gradually squeezing books out of the lives of much of the traditional audience for books: people don’t need books to meet each other anymore, and books aren’t the best way to kill time anymore.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the number of retail outlets for books has also dwindled away. Mall and main-street bookstores have all but vanished; drug-stores and grocery stories have eliminated or downsized their book sections. What that means is that the only time you come across a book these days is when you go looking for one: when you specifically plan a trip to a big-box bookseller or a distant specialty store. That’s fine: people who are already interested in buying books can go to a giant Borders or login to Amazon and get more selection than every before.

This raises a question: how or why would ebooks have this same social aspect (aside from bookclubs, which so far haven’t really glommed onto ebooks)? Blogs and wikis can serve as a kind of intermediary discourse between author and audience (and Thoutreader has also tried to interleave ebook text with public commentaries). But let’s be honest. Usually a work receives renewed public attention only after it is first adapted into a movie or some silly Flash cartoon.

Perhaps we should ignore the social questions and simply focus on clandestine just-in-time entertainment possibilities ebooks can offer. Whenever I pick up a public domain work, I sometimes wonder, “Am I the only person on the planet who has even heard of this work?” Reading long forgotten classics turns attention away from today and towards a world that will never again be. Everyone has their own reasons for reading, but for me, it provides a way to discover new modes of living and compare the human predicament in different time periods. Now that living authors are venturing into virtual gaming worlds , it is only a matter of time before classic authors are recreated into game characters and their imaginary worlds are finally realized by fans many centuries later.

(Originally published on teleread ).

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