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Technology, Collections, and Paranoia

Readers and writers have a common problem – too many books. When news came out that Kindle redacted Orwell titles from their units without warning made me angry. One blogger suggested it was a kin to a Barnes & Noble employee breaking into your house and taking the book your reading and leaving a check in its place. I know the Kindle incident is old news, but what I’ve been ruminating over is how technology is shaping how we read, but doesn’t guarantee that it will be there when we come back to find it.

As a professor and a writer, it is important that I mark my books and fill them with papers, notes, and connecting information. That is why collecting a library is important to me. It is the core of my thinking and my potential ideas. There is nothing more satisfying than going to the bookshelf and finding the book you were looking for. There is nothing more fascinating than making a connection from book to book in your own sphere of understanding.

The Kindle and other electronic devices (ipods, and music downloads included) are great if you enjoy reading the latest murder mysteries or summer books and you travel. Consuming books is typical and sometimes, once you read books, you won’t read them again. That is how I would use that type of technology.

But, these electronic devices are controlled by the companies that distribute the titles and they (as we’ve seen) can take them back. More so, what happens when we cannot find the titles because of legal right, censorship, or company politics? Who controls what we read has always been an issue – from classrooms to old age homes, it is a matter of access.

Let’s touch on Google Books. When I first looked through the titles, I thought it was an innovative way to read books that I normally wouldn’t find anywhere. I’ve found old violin music books, old history books about my town, and a variety of other titles I just wouldn’t find traditionally. However, being a member of the National Writers Union, I’ve been following the lawsuit concerning copyright infringement. The article that appeared in the New York Times last year suggested two sides. “We as publishers are encouraging the widest possible digital discovery for books, while ensuring the best possible commercial prospects for those books across both print and electronic markets,” said Richard Sarnoff, chairman of the Association of American Publishers, at a press conference Tuesday morning.” But it comes back to control over books and ideas and company agendas. Rick Prelinger explained it succinctly when he said, “On the one hand, one admires all of Google’s inventions,” said Rick Prelinger, board president of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that has scanned and made available online one million public domain books. “But when you start to see a single point of access developing for world culture, by default, it is disturbing.”

The final smoldering brick and mortar stores (Virgin?) have replaced by e-stores (Amazon), where you purchase e-things that you may or may not own (itunes), and live in e-lives (Second Life), where the concern becomes what do we really have? Is it ours? Is it my achievement? And if I’ve created everything new based on things that don’t belong to anyone – will my own ideas become someone else’s commodity? As I think about all this, I feel like I am getting paranoid, old, worried about something I can feel in my gut, but don’t see because everyone else is cool with it. Someone, please talk me down.

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Ron Samul is a graduate writing mentor and college instructor. He holds a BA in English and an MFA in Professional Writing. He is the publisher of Skinny Toe Press and Miranda Literary Magazine. He has been a professional journalist and educator for over ten years.