Monday, January 18, 2010

My friend Tom

A couple of weeks ago, my good friend Tom Campbell came up to New York City from his home in North Carolina. Tom owns and runs The Regulator Bookshop, a fine independent that's been anchoring Ninth Street in downtown Durham for thirty-three years, just a stone's throw from the Duke campus. The building formerly belonged to a dry cleaners. There's a good-sized fur vault in the basement that doubles as a stock-room and one of Durham's designated tornado shelters, and a lovely glass-brick fa├žade. So many authors have appeared at The Regulator over the years that the place feels haunted, in a good way. The coffee bar on the lower level is gone but the space has come in handy for music performances and wine tastings. Tom loves what he does and intends to do what it takes to keep doing it, despite the fact that business has been off in recent years. "People are simply spending less money in the store."

Tom hates e-books and not just because they threaten his livelihood. His passion is education -- his wife is a professor -- and he is concerned that reading comprehension and retention is impaired by using these devices. The studies he can cite certainly suggest that there is cause for concern. He would like to see more -- and more conclusive -- research conducted before schools, in particular, jump on the e-book bandwagon and start replacing their physical libraries with hard drives storing digitized texts. (It will be interesting to see how the students at the first all-Kindle private school, Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, fare over the next few years. Some experiment.) I share Tom's concerns and urge you to check out his website The E-Book Skeptic, wherein you'll find references to a handful of alarming studies as well as a healthy dose of Tom's gentlemanly outrage at how warmly the e-book has been embraced by far too many people without understanding its potential liabilities.

Tom's remarks on the market forces behind the e-book hoopla remind me of Alan Lightman's lucid essay, "Prisoner of the Wired World." Lightman recalls a conversation with his MIT colleague Leo Marx during which they discuss the transformation of technology in the nineteenth century:

"Technology went from a means to humanitarian progress to an end in itself. The idea of progress, which had once meant an improvement in the human condition, became equated directly with technology. Progress was technology, technology was progress."

Technology for technology's sake is good at making a few people very wealthy, thereby driving the capitalist engine. The paradigm started with railroads, proceeded with telecommunications, and is now exemplified by the pimping of the internet. The Kindle is increasing the wealth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon shareholders, and Sprint's officers and shareholders. Is it impoverishing the rest of us? Who cares? Effin sheep.

When I was a kid, toothsome hustlers on the idiot box extolled the virtues -- mainly price and convenience! -- of TV dinners, aka frozen food. Nowadays, the people I hang out with wouldn't be caught dead eating that shite. Smart people know that slow food is better for the health of the world, and far more pleasurable for the individual eater too. I wonder what smart people will think of e-books a few decades from now? It wouldn't shock me if they thought like Tom.

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