On her LiveJournal, writer Seanan McGuire makes an important point about the nature of the digital divide and how it affects paper versus e-books. People below the poverty line—which at least 15.1% of Americans are, and probably more than that since it goes by an old standard of poverty—can’t afford e-book readers, or e-books to go on them. They can afford paper books, because books are cheap.
The problem is that printed books are starting to go away due to the encroachment of e-books. Writes McGuire:
[E]very time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to "Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier," what I hear, however unintentionally, is "Poor people don’t deserve to read."
She draws on her own background growing up below the poverty line, with “an ocean of books” in her bedroom to keep her company. “There are still used book dealers in the Bay Area who remember me patiently paying off a tattered paperback a nickel at a time, because that was what I could afford.” She couldn’t have afforded even a “cheap” e-book reader, and many people today are in the same situation.
And how do you give e-books to low-income families? Aside from there being no such thing as a “used” discount e-book, any expensive device put into their hands on a subsidy will end up being stolen and sold.
We need paper books to endure. Every one of us, if we can log onto this site and look at this entry, is a "have" from the perspective of a kid living in an apartment with cockroaches in the walls and junkies in the unit beneath them. A lot of the time, the arguments about the coming ebook revolution forget that the "have nots" also exist, and that we need to take care of them, even if it means we can’t force our technological advancement as fast as we might want to. I need to take care of them, because I was a little girl who only grew up to be me through the narrowest of circumstances…and most of those circumstances were words on paper.
Printed books are probably not going to go away, but even if they don’t, if enough of the “haves” make the switch over to e-books, there may not be enough people still buying and selling paper books to keep the second-hand bookstores in business. What will those in poverty do then?