Stephen Baker

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Strange but true: Technology reduces our book choices

August 18, 2011General

It was five years ago that Wired's Chris Anderson wrote The Long Tail. He described how a large segment of the demand in the marketplace is for niche items, books that don't make the shelves at B&N, movies too obscure for the the rental joints (which since then have closed). The Internet filled the gap. A Mumbai family in Rockville no longer has to travel to Chicago to see Bollywood films. They can get them on Netflix.

However, the new devices we're busily buying to consume digital content--iPads, Kindles, etc--seem to lop off the Long Tail and reduce our choices. If you have a Kindle, for example, or a Kindle App on an iPad or phone, you can download a pile of classics for free. I have Emerson, Trolloppe, Montaigne, Horace Walpole, the Bible, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and lots more. And of course it's easy to get the new fare, whether it's Jonathan Franzen or even Final Jeopardy.

But as I look at my book shelf, I see that much of the stuff there--books written between 1950 and 2005--is unavailable. And I'm not just talking long-tail items. Saul Bellow, a Nobel-prize-winning novelist, is largely off the Kindle. If you want to read Herzog or Humboldt's Gift, pony up for the paperback or stop by the library. You won't read the e-book, at least not yet. Bellow has lots of company.

I encountered this issue last weekend when I picked Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James from my shelf. Back when I was 23, I read all five volumes, and I thought it would be interesting to revisit. I knew that Edel had condensed them into one volume, and that seemed like a better fit for my schedule. But the book is not on the Kindle. So I'm working my way through volume one in paper. And here's the problem: I now have to sit under a good lamp. The margins feel squished. The font is small.

I realize, as I read it, that I'm getting spoiled by my e-reader. The upshot is that I'll increasingly avoid books that don't fit into that format, which means I'll skip Saul Bellow and countless others. Electronics narrows my choices.

Oh, don't worry, you might say. Eventually the publishers will digitize that stuff. There's a button on the Herzog page. It says "Tell the publisher! I'd like to read this book on my Kindle." When enough people press that button, Penguin will spend the money to create an e-book. But how about millions of long-tail books, the ones that only a couple dozen people want to read? Who will spend the money to digitize them?

Nobody. And as we grow accustomed (and addicted) to our e-readers, most of us will find ourselves settling for a modest selection of books, more or less what would fit into the big-box bookstores that are busy dying. It's the opposite of what the Internet promised.

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