We Have Come to the Electronic Frontier, or “Why Aren’t All Books Free?”

On the occasion of Chestnut's graduation from elementary school (sob!), my mother very generously offered to buy her…an e-reader. In fact, heaping generosity upon generosity, she offered to by both my collaborators e-readers.

It's not like we hadn't thought of it, you know? If you've gone ahead and seen Moonrise Kingdom by now like a reasonable person, you know the kind of suitcases we travel with: chockfull of hardcover books. Each child brings an entire bag of books with her whenever we go far from home and it's heavy. Also, they take up a lot of room. Also…maybe it's the future? And we should be there?

I myself have not succumbed to the siren song of the e-reader yet. Of course I like the idea of never running out of books. And having 1,000 books in my bag at all times, without it weighing me down. But when my good friend got an early Kindle, I tried it and pretty much immediately detested the strange flash that happens when you advance a page. I couldn't take it, and so, I let it go.

But that was me, and this is them.

Here's what happened.

Diana refused. I mean, just refused outright. "I like the feel of a book in my hands, I like the way books look, I don't want to read them that way. I like to go to the bookstore and look at all the different books there and to pick one out from seeing it." This is a person who reads blogs. Who is very happy playing RPG on the computer, or enjoying the company (?) of her DS. But she was immovable (for now, anyway) on the subject.

Chestnut accepted. She was delighted, even. And so, she now has a Nook. A very basic one, no color or internet connectivity or anything like that. And she loves it. She has taken to browsing the free downloadable books section of the Barnes & Noble website and sampling in a much wider and freer way than she would if she were, say, buying books, or even having to carry them back from the library. But here's the thing. She said "I wish all the books were free. Why aren't they? It's not fair."

I understand it. I mean once you get used to something's being free, it's hard to swallow being asked to pay for it. And it was, as they say, a teachable moment. We talked about how the authors would get paid otherwise, and she said "But you're not really getting anything. I mean, nothing you can hold in your hand."

It gave me pause. Not the kind of "Maybe you're right" pause, more the "Holy crap, this is what kids growing up now will think about writers and ideas and payment, and it doesn't bode well for any of us."

And this is a girl whose dad is a writer.

I can't remember how I thought about paying for books when I was a kid. Maybe I was just less aware of everything than she is. But in time I understood things like why people should be paid for the work they do. And somehow today's young 'uns will grow to appreciate the stories they read, even as they magically and invisibly insinuate themselves into their machines without fanfare.

They will, right?

5 thoughts on “We Have Come to the Electronic Frontier, or “Why Aren’t All Books Free?”

  1. I think it is true that once things are free it feels like everything like it should be free as well. I think it is confusing. You can hop on the internet and read lots of free things that are inspiring and wonderful and awe inspiring. And it is all free. Nooks and Kindles look like computers. How do you differentiate? I am sure that they WILL. Right? It just needs to be explained…Right? I hope so!

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  2. I know this has nothing to do with your post, but you can totally get library books on your Nook (which is about 90% of what goes on my Nook) and that is, of course, free. Most libraries do it differently, so you’ll have to check out their website, but you know…
    As to things that are pertinent: I think she’ll get it. The idea of having a license to someone’s intellectual property is pretty esoteric. I think she just needs a little more experience to understand it. It’s easy to believe, when you buy a book, that you are paying for paper and ink and shipping, when really, that’s just part of it. Good luck.

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  3. That is pertinent—it is! We tried to get some library books on the nook but gave up before we achieved success. (It’s not astoundingly user-friendly.) We will try again, and prevail. One thing I can’t quite get over: the name. I keep thinking of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish with the nook that had the hook cook book.

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  4. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who is stymied by borrowing Nook library books. My computer says everything works fine, but the books never show up on my Nook. That’s okay–I still like ‘real’ books better anyway. Or so I tell myself…

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