Digital Literature: Faster, Better, Cheaper, Poorer….

kid reading an ipad

Shh, I’m reading. (image by Gunjan Karun)

I finally have an iPad!

Yes, that took a while. Because although I live at the intersection of communications and digital everything, I also happen to be on a budget and think gadgets (including, and sometimes especially my beloved Apple products) cost way too darn much. But as it turns out, I’d been enrolled in one of those credit card rewards programs, and I had no idea. Which means I’d racked up the points for years. Which means I had enough to get an iPad. So I did. And there was much rejoicing in the land!

There was also the rediscovery of why, although I am agnostic and will use whatever technology both works and fits the budget, Apple continues to induce that gasp-inducing reaction with great design. The iPad came out of the box fully charged, and in fact, came on when I accidentally hit the power button while trying to get the packaging off. First I was surprised. Then I was set up. Took me a whole 5 minutes. It was an object lesson in how to win my dollars and loyalty: Make. It. Easy.

Then I tried to use the iPad for the purpose for which it is most intended in my house – reading books. Specifically, from the library.  That took longer.

Reading on iPads, in a library

This isn’t the future. It’s now. What if they didn’t have a reading device? And the library was limited? (image by Kathy Cassidy)

Basically, it took about a minute to set up Netflix, Kindle, and other fun apps. Everything worked smoothly. Really, a child could do this. Then I tried to set up things so I could check library e-books out. It took fully 35 minutes, with several steps. The librarian in my neighborhood had given me the heads-up on this. And although not an early adopter, I’m far from a luddite. Still, the process was grumble-inducing, and humbling at times.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that products from companies with money to invest and profit margins to watch would be easier to use. And that services from tax-funded organizations like a library would not. My friend’s response was classic, one that I’ve been known to make when users complain about Facebook’s ongoing privacy changes and Google’s random decisions to kill something like Reader: “It’s free. You don’t get to complain.”

Yes. But…

I can’t help thinking that if reading inexorably becomes a digital experience – like music has – then what does it say about us as a society if people have to work harder to access reading materials from the neighborhood library? Because the issue, increasingly, isn’t a digital divide. It’s digital access.

And no, I don’t buy the argument that it’s okay to not worry because people will still just check out books. That’s a bit like telling music enthusiasts that they can still buy cassettes and vinyl. Um, no. Yes, I know that people still do – but let’s be honest. The folks still doing that are DJs, hipsters making a conscious choice, and people who never upgraded. I know very very few people in the last category. You? Also, think back to when CDs and the iPod first began to revolutionize the music world – music stores were a bigger part of the commercial landscape than bookstores are now. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Furthermore, I’m not about to tell less well-off segments of society that they need to stick to print while the rest of us aren’t just enjoying our literature online, but probably have a more complex, interactive, and richer reading experience. That makes us a society that, in effect, tells people that if you have money, you can read. And if you do not, you get leftovers.

I want to be very clear here – this is not a knock on libraries, or librarians. Because librarians – who in my experience either know everything or know where to find out what you need – have saved my ass more than once (specifically the fabulous folks at Dana Library, Rutgers-Newark, circa 1995). And I’ve yet to meet a librarian who believes that reading should be limited. If anything, they’re usually quite the opposite.

This is also certainly not a knock on libraries, which have enriched my life immeasurably anywhere I’ve ever been. But if libraries, funded by the tax-payer in the US and therefore open to all residents, are put in a position of reducing access – by publishers, evolving digital rights norms, idiotic rules about how often you can lend out e-literature from print rules that no longer make sense – then it is a sad day.

(p.s. the featured image for this post on the home page is from Life As A Mad Dancer)