___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

no such thing as a free e-book


Reading shouldn’t be elitist. And yet so few of us can read. The statistics – variable, of course, because they’re statistics – suggest that only something like 20% of the world’s population can read.

Think about that. Only 20%. And in the 21st century (by Western calendars, anyway) too, when there should be spaceships to the colonies on Mars and robot butlers catering to our every whim, energy beamed down from solar arrays, tight white one-piece auto-cleaning suits, and oddly retro futuristic electro music in the air.

By reading a single morning newspaper you’ll have devoured more conceptual information in written form than most of the world’s population, since history began, will get or have come across in a lifetime.

For a long time the delivery mechanism for words has been pretty simple.

Paper. Alphabet. Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Print.

But that’s changing. The payload’s pretty much the same, only the delivery system is different. That’s the part that’s changing. Electronic publications. Words and whispers of words through the e-ther. Computer screens. Pad screens. Tablet screens. Mobile phone screens. E-reader screens.

The stray sheet of newspaper print, blown like tumbleweed down a street to wrap around someone’s shin, is turning into an anachronism. Printed media’s circulation numbers is shrinking all the time. The trees might be happier for this. Forests might heave an oxygenated sigh of relief that the larger presence of Gaia herself might be thankful for. But while something is gained there, something is lost elsewhere.

It makes reading ever more elitist.

Where once there was the chance for the most lowly to trace a finger across a line of a badly bruised second-hand (or loaned from the library) book or newspaper or magazine and work lips to shape words, soon there will be only words behind glass screens, museum pieces that are never quite understood or explained to the poor. Museum curators may have to give explanations as to what everything is behind those screens, because a culturally stricken people who never had the chance to truly learn to read and value books – probably they’re not in the museum either unless it’s to duck out of the rain, because poverty narrows horizons and results in the worst near-sightedness – won’t know, and will be scared by the prepossessing air of entitlement that the higher classes, the educated, possess. Books, fiction and non-fiction, will be treated by some with the wrong kind of reverence.

But this change seems almost inevitable. Even now there are those who think closing libraries is not a disaster. It’s only a percentage of libraries being closed anyway, they argue. And look, who goes to the library but those who already read and have a lot of books in the house? If you can’t afford a book from the shops – assuming there will be any bookstores on the high street – then you can always download a free e-book. There are loads of them. Hundreds. Thousands. All those books that have fallen out of copyright . . .

Except . . .

Except there is no such thing as a free e-book.

You need an e-reader, which costs money. You need broadband internet access, which costs money. You need electricity, to power the e-reader and the internet access, and that costs money. And you need an acceptable credit or debit card to open an account at your online bookstore of choice. And that means you need money, because the banks don’t give away those cards without some money from you to begin with.

And in twelve months you’re probably going to need a new e-reader or tablet or pad or graphenescreen or whatever new tech is out there, because your old reader’s going to be out of date and unable to download the latest bestseller. And that costs money . . .

Whatever it is and whatever it’s going to be in the future – and in many ways it’s welcome, freeing up information, getting pre-existing readers to read more, encouraging others to write more – the e-book isn’t free.

We’re just not sure what the true cost is yet.

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