E-books and Social Justice

A meditation on the end of reading among the poor

Amazon recently announced they would sell a less expensive Kindle and it would be equipped to display advertising as a book or newspaper was being read. As a writer, I am interested in any new and emerging method for getting my work out, but I have begun to rethink my original embrace of the e-book and see this new technology as a frightening step toward taking books away from the poor.

I buy several books a year and read constantly. I like a few of them and keep them in my library, the rest I pack up and take to my local library and leave them in the foyer for patrons to pick though and take with them. I also teach reading to adults who were not fortunate enough to have a formal education, or at least had a very limited one. The library is a focal point in the daily lives of many people, many of them too poor to buy a newspaper, own a computer, pay for internet service or to buy books. And still they can read the very same books as any wealthy person in this country. I have spoken to many librarians who lament what they see will be the dominance of e-books in the publishing industry and many publishers have already chosen to stop their lines of print books altogether. No one has yet devised a plan to make these books available to those who cannot afford an electronic book reading device or a computer.

In my local library, there is usually a line of people waiting to use the small number of computers and they are limited sometimes to only fifteen minutes of computer time. The budget in the library system is so tight, some of the branches will close and they will certainly not be buying more computers and electronic reading devices in the foreseeable future. The future of accessing e-books in the library does not look as promising as one might have suspected.

I donated copies of one of my information technology books to a group who then sent them to schools in Africa and The Philippines. I participated in several meetings to plan the distribution of the books. One local philanthropist offered to set up a brokerage service to collect, refurbish and donate used computers to the schools. The problem was made clear to this generous person; in most of the schools there is no electricity. Until Amazon develops a solar powered e-book reading device and donates them to these schools, most likely the poorest of the poor, who can readily pick up a print copy and read from it, may never see an e-book let alone read from it.

I read on-line journals and newspapers and understand as so many others do this, the future of the print newspaper looks bleak. While I have agreed to make my books available to electronic formats, I personally buy print books because that is what I like to read. In a wealthy country like the United States, how we will read in the future will be dictated by the market; if fewer and fewer people choose to buy print books, they will disappear. I can see in the near future access to books will be limited only to those who can afford the technology to display them. Books will once again become a luxury for the wealthy classes.

Shawn Rohrbach is a writer living and working in San Diego California, and Baja California, Mexico. You can email him at: shawn.rohrbach@gmail.com. Read other articles by Shawn, or visit Shawn's website.