Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

I Finally Got a Kindle and I Love It but I Am Scared of Fascism

You know the panicky, paranoid manner in which the Tea Partiers appear to cling to their guns and religion, as if someone really were trying to take them away? For some of us, the same condition of ongoing nerves regarding the encroaching powers of the State comes instead from a V for Vendetta- or Fahrenheit 451-type terror of the State coming after our books. Various States have indeed come after all of these assets, from time to time, so it’s not like any of us is entirely making this stuff up. At this very moment they don’t let Chinese people or Cubans or Belarusians or many, many others all over this world read whatever they want, watch whatever movies they want, or have all the guns and/or religion they want.

So if there is to be a fear of the increasing adoption of e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook and iPad, that is by far the scariest thing about it, because if you were to keep all your books on such a device, some villain really could come along one day and pretty much flip the switch and take all your books away—and not just yours but everyone’s, all at once. What if we had some kind of latter-day Dick Cheney deciding to take action against the despicable, dangerous pointy-heads? Boom! Nothing left to read but George W. Bush’s memoirs.

Nick Negroponte has been going around saying that physical books will be mass-produced for only maybe another five years. His reasoning is opaque, I must say, and appears to have something to do with the fact that books are hard to send to Africa. I hope he realizes that printed books are, in effect, a guarantee of civil liberties, and that we will continue to need them.

Anyways. Despite all these speculative-fiction-induced terrors, my husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday some weeks ago and I love it SO MUCH, no matter what Joan Didion says. Thousands and thousands of books fit on this pretty, if potentially sinister, little machine. I just go over to Project Gutenberg and vacuum stuff up like the textual whale that I am, because I have no literary discernment whatsoever and will gladly spend the afternoon reading Agatha Christie or really, literally, almost anything. Project Gutenberg is now up to 33,000 free e-books, all out-of-copyright and so classics mostly; almost all of them are available in .mobi format, which looks fantastic on the Kindle. You don't have to feel the least bit guilty as you might even at a thrift shop, where whatever you buy, it is all going to take up room on bookshelves that you know you do not have; these books take up no extra room whatsoever, and you can just delete them when you are done!

I bet you will be surprised to hear when Project Gutenberg first started. 1971 (!) is the true answer, and could they ever destroy every Final Jeopardy contestant with that one, I bet. Project Gutenberg’s founder, Michael Hart, is a most unusual and interesting man: the ultimate anti-corporatist. Like Yoda, Mr. Hart doesn’t appear to possess much glamour or power on the outside, but he is bursting with such things on the inside. He doesn’t care two pins about money, hasn’t had a salary for years and acquires the few bits of stuff he seems to need at garage sales.

In the 1970s, nobody really had a clue that computers would come to be used for the mass storage of valuable information. It simply hadn’t occurred to anyone yet that the computer would be useful for anything but, well, computation. It was so shockingly, incredibly good at that! There was such a lot of computation that needed to be done; computation was first in line.

Now it emerges that whoever controls the storage effectively will effectively control the media commons. There are a lot of champions in this fight, but Michael Hart saw it all coming decades ago, and started typing his fool head off, dozens and dozens of whole books, long before OCR was a gleam in a programmer’s eye. Hart has done more to secure the future of the public domain than anyone else in the world, I believe. These widely distributed books cannot be taken away; when they’re downloaded and stored on private devices and media, it’s like insurance for Western Civ.

My first few times on Project Gutenberg I downloaded a lot of quite rare early Wodehouse (highly recommended: The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England) and also a lot of Thackeray, Gibbon, pretty much all of Mrs. Gaskell and, just by accident, Émile Gaboriau’s La Vie Infernale—the fruitiest, most marvelous 19th-c. French melodrama (in two parts: The Count’s Millions and Baron Trigault’s Vengeance. I just love that guy. Plus Shakespeare and the King James Bible and that sort of stuff.

The only book I've bought for the Kindle so far is Infinite Jest, which is far and away my favorite modern novel. A few days later, I was having a little dispute with my husband over whether or not Wallace misuses the word “ilk” in that book, which with the Kindle’s search feature took about twenty seconds to settle (A: not really; it appears just once, in the quoted speech of Madame Psychosis.) It’s all thrillingly searchable, and browsable, plus once you get a book on your Kindle (or Nook, or equiv.) you can highlight things and also make your own notes anywhere you like.

Whoever wonders whether one will buy fewer real books because one has got an e-reader, I can tell you that the answer is alas no, not necessarily. One may quite easily wind up buying more books, if anything, because the getting of books is on one’s mind more.

So all that is the upside of having a Kindle.

On the other hand, my Fahrenheit-451-paranoia was fanned into a giant flaming ball of fear-napalm when I looked into the personal ownership of my own Kindle e-books and files, as one should.

In July of 2009, you may remember, Amazon came stealthily along and deleted e-copies of 1984 (no seriously, they did) and Animal Farm from people’s Kindles—copies they’d already paid for and downloaded—because it turned out that there was a rights problem with the e-publisher. Jeff Bezos wound up apologizing all over himself and taking it all back and promising never to do that ever again, but the fact remains that Amazon has some kind of access to your Kindle files and can literally remove them, if they feel like it, which is downright creepy, and if it were your computer you would not like it one little bit.

Indeed, Amazon can semi-brick your Kindle if they decide you’ve been abusing their service, say by returning too much stuff. And I bet they could brick the whole thing, if they really wanted to. I don’t imagine many of us care for the idea of some corporation having that kind of control over our personal libraries.

Having learned all this, I went along and had a closer look at the current Kindle License Agreement. There is some simply petrifying stuff on there. For starters, you don’t “own” Kindle books, you’re basically renting them.

Unless otherwise specified, Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.

They can change the software on you whenever they like:

Automatic Updates. In order to keep your Software up-to-date, Amazon may automatically provide your Kindle or Other Device with updates/upgrades to the Software.

That is how a totalitarian state would go about confiscating books, if they wanted to. There is nothing in this agreement to stop Amazon from modifying the Kindle software to make it impossible for you to read any of your own files on the device. Such a step is not actually forbidden to them by this agreement; they are under no obligation to protect any data you might be storing on there. That’s not to say that there aren’t laws at least in some states that might allow you to sue for damages; I’m just saying, there isn’t any promise made by Amazon to protect your data or preserve its readability.

They can also change the terms of the deal or simply shut down Kindle service entirely, anytime they like:

Changes to Service. We may modify, suspend, or discontinue the Service, in whole or in part, at any time.

Or they might decide to shut your account down:

Termination. Your rights under this Agreement will automatically terminate if you fail to comply with any term of this Agreement. In case of such termination, you must cease all use of the Software, and Amazon may immediately revoke your access to the Service or to Digital Content without refund of any fees. Amazon’s failure to insist upon or enforce your strict compliance with this Agreement will not constitute a waiver of any of its rights.

Keep in mind these are your books that you bought or collected. Can you imagine a bookseller or publisher asserting rights over the contents of your bookshelves in your house? That’s basically what we’re talking about, here.


It might blow up! LOL JK, well, your books might.


I feel I must! I know I must, somehow.

Oh, and this is from their Privacy (HA!) Policy:

Information from Other Sources
Examples of information we receive from other sources include updated delivery and address information from our carriers or other third parties, which we use to correct our records and deliver your next purchase or communication more easily; account information, purchase or redemption information, and page-view information from some merchants with which we operate co-branded businesses or for which we provide technical, fulfillment, advertising, or other services (such as; search term and search result information from some searches conducted through the Web search features offered by our subsidiaries, Alexa Internet and; search results and links, including paid listings (such as Sponsored Links); and credit history information from credit bureaus, which we use to help prevent and detect fraud and to offer certain credit or financial services to some customers.

So don’t worry or anything, but Amazon is looking at your credit history, too.

After reading all this, I rang the (excellent, and very polite) Kindle customer service up to learn more, especially about privacy issues. One thing I wanted to know was exactly how much access Amazon has to my private, personal Kindle files (you can put your own files on a Kindle, .txt and .pdf files that you made yourself.) But after being bumped up through a couple of layers of supervisors, I didn’t get very clear answers to my questions. For instance, on the question of Amazon’s remote access to my personal stuff. “We don’t have access to your files,” I was first told. But can you see my personal files? And if you wanted to delete my personal files, as was done with the Orwell books, could you do it? “We don’t do that.”

Yeah, but could you?

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

Photo from Flickr by Windell Oskay.

37 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

Wonderful excellent article. I was in the skeptikindle side for years, but it's magnificent how it's changed my reading habits. And unfortunate that the best hardware for e-reading is also the most locked-in to a corporate server. I'm hoping that if AmazonMP3 is a far more open version of iTunes, someone will come along with a very open version of the Kindle that will let me own things I bought? But then again a lot of this is just publishers being goddamn lunatics about digital licensing, and that too shall pass.

HiredGoons (#603)

"no matter what Joan Didion says."

You'd be surprised how often this turn-of-phrase comes in handy.

C_Webb (#855)

OK, it's a little sad how much I love the little thumb. As if my inability to "like" something on The Awl MADE IT LESS LIKEABLE, SOMEHOW. I am a Lab Rat of Like.

Bittersweet (#765)

I love it too! Now I can "like" all my favorite commenters (like you two). Except I'm trying really hard not to care whether my comments get the thumbs-up or to make it a popularity contest.

I'm less afraid of THE STATE coming along and erasing all my books, than I am of some passing magnetic storm or sun-spot flareup doing the same, only for all the ebooks, everywhere in the world at once. It seems dangerous to store so much priceless intellectual content in such an ephemeral medium, and not to get all Twilight Zone/Terminator/The Road-y, but it seems like a decision we are destined, as a culture, to regret.

deepomega (#1,720)

I don't think we'll ever move past physical copies of texts entirely – we'll have both, in parallel. And it's very hard for me to defend the cost (economic, environmental) involved in moving my library of books across the country, just so I could fetishize paper.

Ronit (#1,557)

The Kindle is the most frightening technological development in my lifetime. Seriously.

Underwear (#8,486)

Oh, stop being such an Old.

The advantages outweigh the disadvantages by more than a few pounds.

Bittersweet (#765)

Be that as it may, even if I get a Kindle I'm still keeping my favorite paperbacks in an acid-free, consistent temperature environment.

Ronit (#1,557)

I'm trying to buy mostly hardcovers now, since they last longer, in anticipation of the day when books will no longer be sold

itamarst (#5,667)

It's possible to remove the DRM from Kindle books, allowing you to back them up more reasonably and read them on other devices, etc.:

This is, of course, STEALING and TAKING THE FOOD OUT OF THE AUTHOR'S BABIES' MOUTHS, even when you just want to back up the copy you paid for. But no doubt some Awl readers just enjoy thieving for the hell of it.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

I don't have a Kindle (yet?) but I just bookmarked that page.

Joe Grobelny (#6,969)

libraries don't ever hand over your reading records w/o warrants, and often they never keep a backfile, just sayin'.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

My library is kind of neat and has an option (for personal use) where you can log all the books you've checked out. That's how I was alerted to my habit of checking out so many books and barely finish any.

C_Webb (#855)

I confess it here for the first time: I eat books. I do. I chew on the corners of pages and/or covers. I had to stop eating my hair in 4th grade and so I started eating my books instead. (Don't you SO want to party with me now????) Anyway, while I don't do it anymore (mostly), I need to know I can. So yeah I know Kindle-no-tactile book-codex-fetish blah blah, but I seriously have a hard time reading something I can't potentially chew on for an extended period. (Interweb doesn't count because I don't read interweb in bed, on train, curled up in comfy chair, etc., just at desk.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

Yes indeed, would like to party with you (even more than I did before, I mean.)

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

Sometimes I find myself chewing on the corner of one of the little cardboard inserts that fall out of the New Yorker ): Like, you can tell my level of enGROSSment in the article by the rows of damp concentric teethmarks, like dating a tree!

C_Webb (#855)

@Molly: I dated a tree once. It was NOTHING like eating The New Yorker.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

I'm not sure which one of us is grosser. I use the corners of paperback covers/pages to clean out under my fingernails occasionally.

scrooge (#2,697)

Just wrap your kindle in a bun, or coat it in toffee or something.

jfruh (#713)

My Kindle? My Kindle Seems So Smart But I'm Also Scared About My Kindle (And Fascism)

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I was totally going to make this joke! I am slow. :(

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Kindle is really a spooky name once you bring up Farenheit 451. This is a very nice piece of work.

HiredGoons (#603)

Childrens' Books, they come on Kindling?

Natzzzzzz (#7,318)

I finally decided to pull the trigger on the B&N Nook a few months ago and i will never look back. I take that thing everywhere. The only issue is that i still buy print magazines because the Nook (and Kindle) are mostly made for book reading. So the local bookstore still gets my business for now. I am intrigued by the color version they have coming out which looks like a mini IPad and will have a larger volume of magazine titles, but like everything else techwise i need to hold it in my hands before i decide to make an upgrade (B&N doesn't have the new one on display yet). But i am more than happy with my e-reader and see ALOT more of them on the train then i did a year ago. Can't imagine what it's going to be like a year from now.

Great! Now do Facebook and Foursquare!

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

I like books and technology so you'd think the Kindle would be great for me, except for the fact that it costs money and I don't have much of that stuff. I'm jealous of everyone with a Kindle because the screen looks so perfect for reading text on.

vespavirgin (#1,422)

I love this article, but now I'm afraid of my mother's kindle.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

Why is Amazon looking at credit history? Maybe if I get a Kindle and sign-up, they'll find a trend between how much I spend on books versus paying my bills.

percolator (#1,721)

I feel that equating licensing with "renting" isn't really an accurate statement. Also, a lot of these scary terms in their TOS are present in MANY of the policies of online services. The language here is pretty standard and designed to limit Amazon's liabilities rather than restrict your rights. If it bothers you that much, it might be time to cancel your internet service, your cable tv service, your itunes account, your facebook account (really, they're the ones that I would be most concerned about) and avoid purchasing pretty much anything online, ever.

For what it's worth, the reasons I don't own an e-reader are that my books and magazines don't need to be recharged, and they're much cheaper to replace if I spill coffee or food on them.

We already know that Steve Jobs is a dick and that iTunes presents many of the same problems. With cable and an ISP, what other choice do you have than to OBEY THEIR COMMAND and suck it up? Usually there are only one or two providers in town.

The really scary part about this kind of thing on a Kindle is that it's an actual choice. You don't have to abide by their rules; you can go buy an actual book. But we're willingly abrogating our property rights.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Try hiding a revolver in a Kindle.

mishaps (#5,779)

I did not know that Project Gutenberg had that much Wodehouse. TALLY-HO!

CACurmudgeon (#8,597)

Interesting that the writer is afraid of a "Dick Chaney" type taking action against pointy heads. I'm just as afraid of an Obama type doing the same thing. At this particular moment, there are groups hassling about pedophile book. While I don't have any sympathy for the writer of that book, it is entirely possible that other groups will hassle on pro-abortion, homosexual, socialist, etc. writings. Ebooks need those hard nosed librarians who don't knuckle under to censorship.

scrooge (#2,697)

In other words, you agree with the author (except on how to spell the former VP's name). Yeah, me too.

paulmwatson (#8,606)

How important are personal libraries?

I understand that there is a risk of inconvenience should Amazon or others remove books from your Kindle but, thanks to the internet, the world wide web and Project Gutenberg, the books themselves are practically indestructible. In the past a rare book would exist in a personal library and a fire, a theft, a raid, a simple thing could remove that book from existence. Now, we digitise it, upload it and in fairly short order it is multiplied, cost free, to multitude where not even a government could remove it from existence.

And this does apply even to books still in copyright. Should a book be banned you can visit your nearest shady website and find it, download it and read it. Email it to friends, print it even. I don't obviously advocate pirating Harry Potter but we can probably all put aside copyright morals for banned books of importance. Send the author a Paypal donation if you want to support her work. They're banned, copyright is not doing much for them anymore.

Kindle books are a risk, but digital books are, from what I can see, less of a risk than our beloved paper books.

But I do wonder if a personal, curated library has significant value to society? As opposed to what the web represents which is every book written, never mind published.

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