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Are e-books a “radical” threat to society? Jonathan Franzen said as much at his first press conference over the weekend at the Hay Festival, in Cartagena, Columbia. “For serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience,” said the author of Freedom and The Corrections. “A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

Having been driven away from Kindle by the intrusive and annoying “popular highlights” feature, I have to agree. Yes, I know you can disable it, but the collective e-commentary on great works of literature feels like a violation. Hey, when I’m reading Anna Karenina, I want to sink into Tolstoy’s world, not be notified of that a committee of readers has highlighted a certain phrase. It’s not a work memo.

Franzen went on to argue that doing away with this sense of permanence is harmful to individuals and, thus, to society as a whole. “I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

In just a few sentences, he managed to indight e-books for the ultimate demise of the civilized world—quite the verbal sally from someone not known to mince words. Oprah-Book-Club-gate comes to mind.

E-books causing the downfall of civilization? Hmm. I thought Angry Birds was doing that. Still, Franzen’s comments struck a chord with me. I’ve always preferred physical books, and now I’m thinking that this sense of permanence—this feeling that you are holding your own, perfect piece of art—may be why. “Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it,” said Franzen. “They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper.”

It’s the interaction with this ink and paper that makes my reading experience. I love the smell of books and the stiffness of the binding that softens as you read along. I like to ruffle the corners of the pages, and I get a real satisfaction as I turn them. I run my fingers across the dust jacket, daydreaming about the design and the writing within. Despite the warning, I often buy books just for their covers.

But, no. I don’t think this makes me a more serious reader than those who are glued to their screens. Some of my bookwormiest friends are strictly e-readers. Kathleen, who runs our book club and goes through books like they are episodes of 24, was an early e-dopter. Even before Kindle, Nook, iPhone, or Google Books, Kathleen would surf arcane online collections of universities or libraries to download public-domain works. Sometimes she reads onscreen, and sometimes she prints out pages, but I think that digital ownership adds to her connection with the material. Lest anyone confuse speed with lack of seriousness, Kathleen does not read book candy (unlike me). She favors literary fiction: Ian McEwen, Philip Roth (one of her favorites), and most recently, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the Booker Prize winner. However someone ‘gets their read on’ works for me. It just saddens me (for them) when they don’t read at all.

Still, Franzen’s provocative comments keep turning in my head: the sense of permanence and the dangers of impermanence. It’s not just e-books, but also smartphones, tablets, laptops, video games, picture-in-picture TV screens (one show isn’t enough?) and on-demand programming—a constant stream of instant gratification. Anticipation has been largely replaced by impatience. Is it any wonder that so many of us have ADD?

“The combination of technology and capitalism has given us a world that really feels out of control,” said Franzen. He then argued that technology has empowered the bankers over elected politicians. “We are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.”

Oops, guilty. I love my iPhone and my iPad. The first thing I did was launch the iBooks app with its fun “bookshelf” graphic. My first download: The Lyrical Ballads. It’s a digital reproduction of the original 1798 edition, just as it appeared to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Well, almost. I then downloaded the books of all three Brontës, and of course, all of Jane Austen. I just love having a library in my pocket wherever I go. Ultimately though, I find the e-read is not as rewarding as the printed page.

We defenders of said page got an alarming jolt last May, when Amazon announced they were selling more e-books than bound copies. This week, we learned that Barnes & Noble is struggling to survive. Who would have thought we’d be rooting for Barnes & Noble? It does feel like the inexorable march towards an all-digital dystopia.

Yes, I do despair over about the future of books and bookstores. It’s hard not to when you consider how quickly the music industry collapsed. Does anyone buy CD’s anymore? I fear that one day I will become the biblio version of a vinyl geek, scouring the back alleys of Berlin or Hay-on-Wye for shops that actually sell old-school, printed books. Perhaps Franzen is right. For me, a bookless world would be indeed a giant leap backwards for civilization, or perhaps, a sign of Apocalypse.

The Telegraph: Jonathan Franzen: E-books are Damaging Society

The Guardian: Jonathan Franzen Warns E-books are Corroding Values

The Telegraph Blog: Franzen Wrong About E-Books

NPR: No More E-Books vs Print Books Arguments, Ok?

Fast Company: Amazon Sells More E-Books than Paper Ones

NY Times: The Bookstore’s Last Stand—Barnes & Noble in the Fight of It’s Life

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The Grinch this year is not out of a book, but selling them … along with toys, electronics, and dvds. The online megalith Amazon has hatched a scheme to pay customers to walk out of retail stores on Saturday Dec 10 without making a purchase. Amazon wants shoppers to scan the price of electronics, toys, or dvd’s with their Price Check app (thus sending them this data), and then walk out of the store to get a discount of up to $5 on that item online. It’s a pretty low blow—despicable—considering that retail stores are already suffering in this tough economy and that this is typically their make-or-break time of year.

It’s also sort of creepy and nefarious if you think about it. It’s basically corporate espionage—a horde of non-customers fanning out with digital monitors to spy on law-abiding retailers. It’s like something out of 1984, and Amazon is “Big Brother.”

But now it’s not just bookstores or the Mom-and-Pops in Amazon’s sightlines. By specifically targeting toys, electronics, and dvds, Amazon is launching an attack on larger chains like Best Buy and Target.

So this Saturday, Dec 1, please consider boycotting Amazon and make your purchases elsewhere.

It’s not like Amazon needs this underhanded tactic. They continue to gain market share over brick-and-mortar stores—both Main Street shops and big-box chains. Amazon already has an edge over these businesses because they don’t have to collect sales tax. The company has lobbied aggressively and waged a fierce legal campaign to avoid sales taxes, using the spurious argument that they shouldn’t because they have no physical stores. This has proven a real problem for independent retailers, especially bookstores, who are also too small to compete with Amazon’s cut-rate pricing.

Other online retailers like REI, LL Bean, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Best Buy all have to add sales tax onto online purchases transacted in states where they have stores. That’s right—these companies are effectively penalized for having retail presences that contribute jobs and money to local communities. If anything this situation should be reversed. Retailers should get tax incentives for operating stores which employ more people. Amazon is like a giant conveyor belt, so their work force does not really grow in pace with expanded business and profits. REI does more than half of their business online, but they just opened a store in my town. I’m so grateful they have arrived with added local jobs. Also, I just love wandering around outdoor gear stores (after bookstores, of course).

If you think this doesn’t matter to you because you don’t care whether you are buying something from Amazon,  or say Best Buy, then I have one word: Netflix. Remember back when Netflix had real competition from local rental shops and from Blockbuster? What happened when those businesses went under? Netflix doubled their prices. When the competition folds, do you really think that Amazon will be selling you that flat-screen TV for half-price or offering free shipping?  One thing we have learned about a market economy is that competition is healthy and monopoly is not.

Beyond being a holiday Grinch, Amazon is also somewhat of a Scrooge. Wal-Mart and Target rank consistently among Forbes’s list of most charitable corporations.  Best Buy donates 1.5% of it’s pre-tax earnings. Barnes & Noble last year collected over 1 million books and 20,000 toys for donation. By contrast, and despite earning more than $34 billion in revenues last year, Amazon has become notorious for its lack of charitable giving. Even in their own hometown of Seattle, the company is conspicuously absent from the funding of local arts and community projects, even though other corporate giants like Starbucks, Boeing, and Microsoft give generously. Slate.com reported that there are lemonade stands which give more money to charity than the 34+ billion-in-revenues Amazon.

In fairness, there are many good points to make about Amazon. They pioneered e-business at a time before anyone believed there could be viable online enterprise. They helped change our thinking about digital applications and information. They invented e-reader technology with the hugely popular Kindle. They developed a sophisticated online inventory management system that is utilized by many other companies.

Still, what I’m arguing for is a fair playing field for retailer. It seems, from their slippery business strategies, that Amazon does not want any playing field at all.

At the end of the day, I do understand if you are attached to your Kindle, and I too have enjoyed the allure and satisfaction of the one-click purchase. Though now I pretty much always go to my local bookstore or other brick-and-mortar retailer instead. But please seriously consider spreading some of your dollar to other stores. Most independent bookstores now also sell e-books via their websites.

And please consider boycotting Amazon on Saturday, Dec 1, in protest of their predatory customer-walkout scheme.

Amazon not only wants to own the competition. Amazon wants to own you … and everything that you want to own.

Amazon Launches Christmas Attack on Local Shops

Retail Groups Lash Out After Amazon Announces PriceCheck Promotion

Go Forth and Destroy Your Community Sayeth Amazon

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