Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
By Cam Mather
I am not a Luddite. I do not resist new technology. But I will never read books on an e-reader. I will not buy ebooks. I’ll publish them for readers who want them, but I won’t read them.
I bought one of the first Macintosh computers off the line in 1984 when they came out, and I had been using and selling microcomputers for several years before that. In 1987 I started my own company Aztext Electronic Publishing, doing desktop publishing and I have kept the business current through all of the mind bogglingly technological changes that have occurred over the past 24 years. I am able to live off the grid because of the technology in my solar panels and inverters and I have had to stay current and learn and understand developments as they came along. I use Final Cut Pro to edit educational DVDs and I can text message on my cell phone! But I find the thought of sitting down in my living room (or anywhere else) to read a book on a little hunk of silicon and plastic repugnant, and I’m not going to do it.
We are in the process of providing our books electronically, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to read books that way. I love books. I love the look and feel of books. I love putting a bookmark in the page where I finished off. I don’t want to sit down and have to figure out some software application to get to that page when I start reading that book again in a few days. And most of all, I love the look of a book on my bookshelf. Yes, that’s materialistic and shallow, but I love them none-the-less.
I know I’m going to take abuse about this, but I love bookshelves filled with books. They represent something deep in my psyche. They represent knowledge, and power, and humanity, and tradition. They tie me to the humans that huddled reading by candles 500 years ago. Books represent ideas - ideas that change the world.
As you know from my previous blogs, I’m not much of a shopper (recent TV purchase excluded) but the one item I love to buy is books. Most of the books that I buy are used and we’ve discovered all the best places to score used books in this area. As much as I love buying a new book, there’s nothing like finding a great book that I’ve been hoping to read for just a couple of dollars. I know, I could use the library, but I want to own a book. I don’t want a time limit on how long I have to read it. And I want to be able to refer to it later if necessary. I tend to prefer non-fiction and I like to be able to track down a statistic or something I’ve read long after I’ve finished the book.
Several weeks ago I saw Niall Ferguson’s 2008 book “The Ascent of Money” in the local Salvation Army store. It was hard cover and $3 but I held off buying it because I wasn’t sure I would read it. As soon as I got home I regretted not picking it up and the next time we went to that store it was gone. I was devastated.
This was the Christmas when business commentators declared the end of the printed book. They have decided that the momentum has now shifted to ebooks and in a few years you won’t be able to buy a paperback anymore. One thing I’ve learned over the years about financial analysts is that they get it wrong, almost all the time. They were calling Nortel stock a good buy at $124 before it began its slide to bankruptcy. Almost none of them predicted the financial collapse of 2008 that seemed inevitable to me, and so when they now tell me the day of the book, as we know it is over, I can relax.
They are using the potential merger of Barnes and Noble and Borders in the U.S. as proof that bricks and mortar stores are dinosaurs. They’ve decided this is because of eBooks. Of course it couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that most American families are going through real hard times, and if you still have a job, and if you’re not underwater on your mortgage, you’ve got to have some concern about your financial stability. So books have become a luxury that can be put off. Libraries are experiencing unprecedented use as people realize you can access books without having to buy them. While I’d much rather that people buy my books, I fully understand why they might want to use a library. Unfortunately my plot to have all libraries closed to force people to buy my books failed miserably.
Technology makes everything “cheap.” If I can download a song for free, what value does it have? Do I even think about the artist who wrote it? And the internet is making information cheap. Why would I buy a book if I can just get the information for free? Some people will always think this way, but we’re lucky that people have appreciated the knowledge and work that goes into our books, and we appreciate people buying our books. When you pick up a book those ideas and that information has value. As a couple of megabytes of pixels, I think it lacks that same value.
One of the challenges we have today with digital information is passing it from one format to another. Institutions have had huge problems as storage technologies have changed over the years and they’ve had to move digital information from one to the next. I have SyQuest discs and ZIP disks and all sorts of other storage devices that I used to use to archive customer files. But once those devices stopped working, or I upgraded my hardware and the new computer didn't have that older interface, I can’t access that information. You know I never, ever have that problem with my books. I just open them and they work. No updates or conversion boxes required.
I do not want one more piece of technology that will eventually be obsolete that I will have to dispose of, and one more rechargeable battery that stops working and that I will have to replace. The books on my shelves have no batteries. They just keep working and working and working.
We have two challenges with getting our books into an electronic format right now, the biggest of which is making the file sizes more manageable. William “Bill” Kemp’s books like “The Renewable Energy Handbook” and “Biodiesel Basics and Beyond” are 500+ pages and filled with graphics and photos. This means they end up being massive as digital files, and while we’ve had many people email us requesting we get an electronic version, we haven’t found a format that can handle it. My book “Thriving During Challenging Times” is available as an eBook on Amazon since it’s more text-based.
Formatting is the other challenge. It’s like the VHS and Betamax format challenge decades ago, but worse, since there are so many competing eBook formats and eReaders available. Getting a book into one format is hard enough, getting it into multiple formats is a pain and which one is going to win out? We continue to work on it.
I read an article recently on how people love to give “Gift Cards” but hate to get them. It makes sense. People want a box with something in it. Who wants a little hunk of plastic? Can you imagine giving your spouse an “eBook”? Yuck. Here dear, here’s $74 worth of eBooks on a card. “Is that all I’m worth to you?” “You don’t know me well enough to actually spend a few minutes in a book store and find a book you think I’d like?”
Nope, I’m going to continue to buy books. I’m going to continue to get a crick in my neck as I walk up and down the rows of used books in the local secondhand stores scanning for that coveted book I didn’t buy when it came out but that I’ve always wanted. And I’m going to keep building bookshelves to put them on. Our house was built in 1888. I think of bookshelves filled with books as just another layer of insulation in the winter. When the revolution comes I’ll be one of those people like in Fahrenheit 451 wandering around memorizing a book to keep those ideas alive. And to paraphrase Ian McEwan in his book “Saturday,” when this civilization falls and the old folk are huddled around peat fires, I’ll pull out a musty old book that will describe a time when we stood in small rooms under jet streams of hot clean water using lozenges of scented soap to wash ourselves clean.
If you want me to give up my hardcover, printed books you’ll have to pry them from my cold dead hands.
Photo by Cam Mather.