What happened to all the e-books?

Back in Cambridge, I can’t get through a seven-minute subway ride to work without seeing a dozen e-readers in action. To be honest, I think I see just as many commuters reading mobile devices as I do printed books. True, this could be the exception, since I live and work in one of those most literate and tech-savvy cities in the country. (Wish it were that I could place myself in one of those demographics!) At the same time, though, friends and family across the country have been talking about their Nooks, Kindles, and iPads. Some of them, perhaps due to the convenience of these devices, or perhaps due to their novelty, are reading now more than ever.

Bookstore on Rue Mouffetard
Bookstore on Rue Mouffetard

But I’m not at home right now. Instead, during my three-minute walk to the bakery here in Paris, I pass a comic book store, a traditional bookstore, and two small publishers. Despite the drastic changes to reading and publishing practices effected by digital technology, independent, brick-and-mortar bastions of the book still abound in this city. I’ve been here for over two weeks now. I’ve passed dozens of cafes, ridden the subway dozens of times, and only twice have I seen a tablet computer. Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath for the unlikely sighting of a Nook or a Kindle.

Maybe Parisians are more prudent about using expensive electronic devices in public. Maybe they’re a little more attached to the traditional printed book than are their American counterparts. Then again, maybe I’m just not as observant as others who have been watching this trend. Whatever the reason, after a short ride on the subway or a morning coffee at a cafe, you certainly wouldn’t think the book is experiencing the same identity crisis in Paris as it is back home.


  1. BLack

    It is interesting to think about this from a geopolitical perspective. What does it mean for an independently functional nation to adopt another nation’s closed platforms of distribution of culture? The iPad is Apple, the kindle is Amazon. They are both American corporations. If I was from another country, and was proposed to access my cultural assets through a portal controlled by entities from another nation, I would think twice about it, and would definitely consider issues of cultural sovereignty.

  2. Jack Kessler

    BLack makes a good point, I believe: there is much misunderstanding of and resistance to the technologies of some cultures by some others, yes — the point somewhat of my own post which follows, here… At the same time, though, “the technology is neutral” — which I don’t believe for a minute — makes its point as well, some of the highest household penetration rates in the world are found in Scandinavia, it’s been said that there are more Internet nodes in Finland than there are Finns, and plenty of the French are online, très branchée, in-fact if not théoriquement(!) / from their political & philosophical point of view.

    Try the Quartier Latin on your next walk, Polson, the Sorbonne, or the Right Bank up around the Bourse, anywhere the population is Parisian and not Tourist… It makes sense to me that tourists might not tote their iPads to France — or their precious iPhones, even, on a vacation — vacations, a togetherness thing, don’t benefit greatly from the digital, nothing like being together with a soulmate whose nose is buried in the email all the time… But workaday Paris, student and other, is as online as anywhere I believe. Apple’s product intros have something to do with that too: their timing — US & Asia markets get things first. But Paris has lots from Nokia & Siemens and others as well, now that the Age of Mobile has arrived.

    Paris loves its bookstores in addition — not instead, as in the US — creative destruction hit the publishing industries there hard, indie bookstores too, but French bookstore-loyalty is almost a fetish. Parisians love to “browse”, for books — US consumer book-buying is more known-item, better-suited for Amazon.com — there are other differences, as well, but there are two big ones.

    • Jack Kessler

      Explanatory note — I received an email… — I’d said,

      > “technology is neutral” — which I don’t believe for a minute — makes its point

      The “technology is neutral” debate takes place on two levels, at least:

      Superficially, yes, the communications “pipe” carries whatever goes into it. If sender sends dit-dah then that’s what receiver receives, dit-dah. That’s the usual technologist’s view of the process: best summed up by IBM’s famous “Garbage In / Garbage Out” — or and perhaps even better or at least more pungent, by Tom Lehrer’s equally-famous, “Life is like a sewer, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” 🙂

      The epistemologist’s point of view, however — one level higher or one level lower than the technologist’s — I prefer “lower” because it seems more grounded in the primeval muck of real life, to me — is that communication requires significance, otherwise it is just meaningless bits & bytes… This is the infamous distinction between “data” and “information”: the two are very different — that’s the resolution of Searle’s “Chinese box” conundrum and other paradoxes about the problem.

      Significance, though — “meaning”, “relevance” — is complicated. Epistemology has wrestled with it since the Early Greeks, and still is wrestling. It requires inquiry into *gasp* subjectivity — “What did you _mean_ by that?”, it asks, of both sender and receiver and even of the “channel” — its answer is supplied ultimately by fuzzy concepts such as art, belief, intuition, music, poetry.

      Modern positivistic science ducks the problem, in communications theory, information science, datamining, by positing a neutral pipe: garbage in / garbage out. But that is not always so useful, as the critics of GoogleSearch often point out — and such “communication / information” problems become greater and more dramatic in multi-lingual & multi-cultural contexts, where you can’t simply assume that the other person knows & shares your “meaning”.

      Anyway, that’s what I meant. Sorry to have been obscure. There’s lots of understanding of this vagueness and these vagaries in this Symposium — that’s what I like most about it, all the poets & literary types & artists here.

      The pipe isn’t neutral — that itself is just a literary device, a fiction, like “equilibrium theory” in economics pace MIT’s Prof. Solow & his famous apples & oranges dust-up about that with Paul Krugman — nothing’s ever neutral.

  3. Jack Kessler

    One other thought here is that I do all my own ebook reading on my iPhone — using a Kindle app, other software — so anyone looking for evidence of ebook reading needs to count not just Kindles & nooks but desktops, laptops, palmtops, & mobiles, too!

  4. Roger Brisson

    Ironically, for a country so cutting edge in terms of technology, the Germans are much more cautious and reticent about jumping on the next-big-thing, and I believe the situation is similar in France. Geez, we have German friends who are still mistrustful about microwave ovens! The German publishing industry is watching the Anglo-American shift to ebooks with both curiosity and a good dose of fear, if not terror. Both Germany and France have deeply entrenched (paper) book cultures, with well-developed distribution infrastructures and commercially protected book shops.

    The initial response to the Kindle was among the German book industry was to regard it as a condescending ‘Spielzeug’, or toy, that would come and go like a fad. Now that this is clearly not the case, that ebooks are convulsing the Anglo-American publishing industry, the response on the Continent is very much the ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ syndrome. German publishers are terrified of “letting go” of their intellectual property–in the form of books–to the whims of bits and bytes, and at the moment the German Kindle Bookstore is a joke (as with the French).

    But here’s the dilemma for both the Germans and the French: ereading tablets like the Kindle and iPad are all the rage much like everywhere else, so a bizarre situation is developing where Germans, French and other continental Europeans are supporting a booming ebook culture… in English! A highly problematic situation is developing in which cultural transport mechanisms are shifting to the non-native language English, especially among young people. In their inability and/or unwillingness to shift to ebooks the German and French publishing industries are unwittingly throttling the primary means of sharing cultural ideas in the form of the book in their respective native languages. Unless they move quickly to rectify the situation, and to move to an ebook-friendly publishing culture, they’re go to lose an entire generation of French and Germans who will grow up reading books… in English.

  5. Jack Kessler

    They could pass a German equivalent of the loi Toubon: for a while, back in the 90s, it was illegal in France to use English terms in French publication — you could be fined or even jailed for saying “airbag”, it had to be a “coussin gonflable de protection”.
    They’ve relented since…

  6. Dirk Hooper

    Your comparison was America versus France. Without any evidence at all, I suspect if you were travelling the streets of Japan or South Korea that you might wonder where all the printed books had gone!

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>