Thursday, February 10, 2011

Culture Shock 02.10.11: Reading is about to change forever

A few years ago, I spent most every weekend rummaging through the upstairs stacks at this used bookshop in downtown Athens, across the street from the Limestone County Courthouse.

After a few months, I'd assembled a complete set of old "Conan: The Barbarian" paperbacks containing the original stories by Robert E. Howard. I also found most, but not all, of the then out-of-print "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The hunt was almost as important as the prize, as I imagine collectors who thumb through boxes at flea markets and yard sales for rare LPs and overlooked baseball cards would agree. But that bookshop is now gone, and the experience of hunting for used books may not be far behind.

Now I can find all of those John Carter stories for my Kindle, and they cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to free. Click, and it's done. It's convenient, but it lacks the romance of upsetting your allergies as you blow dust off a brittle, yellowed paperback someone else bought for 75 cents in 1972. announced last month that it sold more Kindle books than either paperbacks or hardcover books in the fourth quarter of 2010.

That's not counting the public-domain e-books Amazon offers free of charge.

Brick-and-mortar bookseller Barnes & Noble's quick adoption of its own e-book reader, the Nook, has helped it avoid the fate of longtime rival, Borders. (Birmingham-based Books-A-Million has thrown in with B&N and now offers the Nook.)

Borders, meanwhile, is likely bound for bankruptcy. While Amazon raked in $200 million more in 2010 than it did in 2009 — no recession here — Borders was hard at work losing $74.4 million in just the fourth quarter.

It's easy to get nostalgic about books. I get nostalgic about lots of things, like the orange-and-brown earth tones of 1970s kitchen appliances. But like it or not, the electronic book is making dog-eared pages and creased spines obsolete. And I can think of some reasons why that's for the better., a blog that follows Kindle news, directed me to a Tampa Tribune story about a Florida school district that spent $400,000 to buy Kindles for its students. The district will get some of that back in savings; electronic textbooks run $15 less than traditional ones. Plus, there's the bonus of Clearwater High's students getting to carry slim, lightweight electronic readers instead of lugging around heavy backpacks.

But probably the greatest long-term advantage is an e-book gives students instant — and often free — access to thousands of works that are in the public domain. That includes most of what students read in their high-school literature classes, from Shakespeare to "Moby Dick."

It's a lot of free material that can replace students buying books with their own money, which is what I did when I was in high school. (I certainly wouldn't pay for "Moby Dick" if I didn't have to.)

E-books will also radically change libraries. The New York Public Library's website features e-books for iPads, PCs, Sony Readers and Android-powered devices. Companies like Cleveland-based OverDrive offer software allowing library patrons to check out e-books for a limited time. The Jefferson County Library Cooperative uses OverDrive's system.

The world is full of free and inexpensive e-books. And devices like the Nook and Kindle are about to put them into more hands than ever.

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