Books, we got Books!

OKAY… I talked about this is today’s podcast at I have been sitting on this for two years now, thinking it wasn’t “ready” but I wanted to get it out, so read on!


Books are wonderful things. Millenia ago, our predecessors shared their histories, and explained the world around them, through an oral tradition, passing stories down from one generation to another. Over time, these stories were written down, essentially “locking” the stories down on paper. Ever since, books have been a way to disseminate information for thousands of years, and with the advent of the printing press, to do so quickly, and broadly. We can partake in the imaginations of a Tolkien, a Lewis, a Shakespeare, or a Plato. We can read the political thoughts of Aristotle, Marx, and Obama, or the theological insights of Paul, Aquinas and Spong. We can even allow our minds to drift as we read romance novels through the ages, or the horror stories from Beowolf, to Frankenstein, to any Stephen King novel. Each book brings new thoughts, new images, and new imaginings.

In the 21st century we have even more ways to disseminate, and enjoy, the works and thoughts of others. Just as the printing press made paper books available to the masses, we have digital ebooks to take dozens of books with us, to read anywhere. We now also have stepped beyond “books on tape” to truly digital audio books that, when combined with personal media players such as the iPod, enable even those who cannot read to enjoy the panoply of thoughts.

If the printing press was the first revolution, sharing ideas with the literate masses, it was limited in the very requirement for literacy. In order to read, one must be able to read. Thus is its limitation it provided the impetus for literacy as more people sought to embrace the ideas made possible through literature.

This latest revolution both extends and hinders the reach of literature. Certainly, if one defines ‘educated’ and ‘literate’ as being exposed to ideas, then we can see how a more informed, and thus more literate, populace will result from such broad access to reading. And through the efforts of Project Gutenberg many of the classics through the ages are now available to the masses. People with internet access can now enjoy the thoughts of the ages, wherever they can reach the internet. And with the One Laptop per Child initiative, children in developing nations can be exposed to ideas global in scope, and timeless as the ages. And finally, whether one can actually read, or not, the proliferation and easy transportability of digital audio files has opened literature to everyone.

Alas, this great awakening may yet be returned to slumber. In the great confluence of enlightened self-interest we find that several challenges remain for making this the greatest literate population ever.

First, it is possible that, when provided with ample reasons to not learn to read, the population reverts once again to an “oral” tradition. Admittedly this is a different oral tradition. In this “new” tradition, the stories are told, and frozen, and remain accessible to those that can’t read. But in this “new” oral tradition the strengths of the oral tradition, the committing the stories to personal memory, embedding them deep in the social soul, is replaced by committing them to digital memory. The stories are retold, but not necessarily embraced. And perhaps worse, these stories then are so easily accessible as to render the impetus to read almost impotent. 1

The second great challenge is the rush to protect the “digital rights.” Cory Doctorow, in a This Week in Tech podcast, (42 minutes, 50 seconds in) points out that Audible books, and other electronic book distributors, will not allow for the distribution of digital rights free books. Cory Doctorow actually insisted that his books be distributed without DRM, and audible refused.

So why is this the “second great challenge?” Perhaps the best way to explain the impact of DRM is to ask this set of questions: Have you ever given away a book? Loaned a book? Borrowed one from the library? The way digital rights are currently implemented, you cannot loan out a book that you have already read. You can’t say, as so many of us have, “this is a great book–I will give it to you when I am done.” In fact, the terms of service are such for the Kindle that you can’t sell, it loan it or give it away! If we are to experience the benefits of this greatest age of literacy, we need to allow for information to be shared. I honestly understand the concept of intellectual property (what professor doesn’t?) but I also understand that once we share an idea (and perhaps, get paid for it) the idea not only can enter the mainstream, we should hope that it does!

1 In fact, this is one area in which I struggle with podcasting for courses. If I make my lectures, notes and answers available as audio podcasts have I disconnected the students even further from the richness that is “the text?”