The Remains of the Day

I loved all the personal stories that Jeff Bezos shared in a speech I found on the web last week. He delivered the speech in 2001 to an audience of young aspiring entrepreneurs. And at one point, he shares a fond remembrance of the library where he’d read books as a teenager — and reveals his favorite book.

For a shortcut, point your browesr to
tinyurl.com/JeffBezosRemembers

His parents were in the audience that day, and Jeff Bezos remembers one important fact about his own childhood. “My parents will attest to the fact that I was difficult to punish as a child, because I was quite happy to be grounded — to stay in my room and read!” But then one member of the audience asked him a personal question. You sell a lot of books — but do you ever read them?

Jeff answers yes, but then surprises the audience by revealing that to this day, at least half of the books he reads are science fiction. It seems logical, since he grew up to be a successful and celebrated visionary — but he traces his preference to the summers he spent on his grandfather’s ranch. His grandfather lived in Texas, and Bezos spent some summers there as a teenager, in a tiny town of 3,000 people — with its own tiny library. Books were donated by the townspeople, and a third of the collection was science fiction, “because there was this one guy in town who loved science fiction.”

Decades later, maybe that was in his mind when he made his fateful decision to start Amazon.com. He’d made a list of 26 possible products — “the first, best product to sell online” — studying a list of all the top products being sold by mail order. There was clothing, music, videos, computer software and hardware. And it’s fascinating to see that in the years since, Amazon has since gone on to sell all of them…

But were those science fiction books in his mind when he decided that the first product they’d sell would be books? Bezos listed out the practical business case for an online bookstore “There are literally millions of different books in print at any given time, and computers are good at organizing such large selections of products. You could build something online that literally couldn’t be built any other way.” (Imagine trying to print a paper catalog with every title, Bezos tells the crowd or a physical bookstore with copies of everything!)

After all that, Jeff Bezos still loves curling up with a good science fiction book, he tells the crowd, saying it still accounts for at least half of the books he reads. But then he reveals to the audience what his favorite novel is. Remains of the Day — the story of a butler who looks back over his life wondering if he missed an opportunity which will never come again. The 1989 book is an award-winning literary novel, but it would never be described as science fiction. “My wife inflicts good fiction on me every once in a while,” he jokes to the audience.

“Which I always end up loving…”

Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte

When the New Year started in 2014, I’d wanted to honor a Kindle tradition I started nearly four years ago. It’s remembering one of my favorite memories about books, a special moment when time itself seemed to magically turn into something that you could hold in your hands. It gave me a feeling that I’ll never forget about books…and about the authors who write them. And for a second “history” seemed to be another word for a special glow that you could actually feel…

And it also led to a few fun free Kindle ebooks!

This adventure all started a few years ago, when I was surfing the web and discovered that Mark Twain had once co-authored a play with a forgotten writer named Bret Harte. (Once their legendary meeting was even depicted in the ad for Old Crow whiskey pictured above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.

“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”

In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”

Bret Harte’s short story (as a free Kindle ebook)

Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (as a free Kindle ebook)

Right before Christmas, I wrote about how Harte’s words had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California…

But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”

The Luck of Roaring Camp and other stories
Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Kindle ebook)

So on one chilly November afternoon, I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from a shelf at my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.

Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” ultimately became the very first ebook that I’d ever ordered on my Kindle. (I’d been looking for print editions, but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc.) It was several days later that I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.

“SEP 21 1905.”

Bret Harte library book - checked out in 1905Close-up of library check-out date for Bret Harte book

I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.

Bret Harte library book - old check-out datesCheck-out dates for old library book

More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.

I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.

India

A public library in India tried a wonderful experiment to attract new members. They’re not just loaning out ebooks. They’re actually loaning out Kindles!

“We started the initiative after we got five Amazon Kindles as donation…” explained the president of the Desaposhini Public Library, in an article in the Times of India. “We think that by embracing the digital revolution we can make the library more attractive to the tech-oriented younger generation!” So far, the results have been encouraging, according to the library official. He described the early feedback as “very promising,” saying they’ve been flooded with new membership requests, mostly from young readers — and the community has been very enthusiastic. “It’s like walking home with a library,” one patron told the newspaper, saying the Kindle’s screen provided “a very comfortable reading experience.”

In fact, nearly a quarter of a million ebooks are already available, with over 200,000 copy-right free books or books purchased from Amazon. But they’re also planning to digitize rare books — a great way to preserve some cultural treasures. To expand their program, they’re even considering a plan where they insure their Kindles against damage — maybe by taking a deposit from members each time they check out a device!

It’s fascinating to watch Amazon’s new technology carving out a place for itself all around the world…

A typical public library

I remember when you couldn’t check out library books on your Kindle. But now many libraries have Kindle e-books that their patrons can check out — and it’s creating some brand new controversies. Last month, a special edition of a Bay Area newsweekly examined how tablets like the Kindle are changing our world. And they included a special article about libraries that provided something most articles don’t: actual statistics!

In Alameda County — which includes major cities like Berkeley and Oakland — more than 2,364 e-books were checked out in just one day. (And 50% more e-books were also waiting to be checked out, having been placed on hold.) But then the article analyzes an emerging battle between publishers and libraries over how much to charge for the library’s copy of an e-book — and why the publishers are pushing for new rules. “Unlike e-books, publishers think getting a print book from a library is already enough of a hassle and so it won’t hurt sales at bookstores online,” the reporter notes.

“After all, checking out a library book requires a trip to the library, and usually some scavenger hunting.”

But the reporter makes an interesting observation: e-book sales are still going strong, even though libraries are already offering more library editions of e-books that their patrons can check out for free. Nonetheless, some publishers are pulling their e-books from libraries altogether, or charging the libraries more for a lend-able copy. For a librarian’s perspective, the reporter interviewed Sarah Houghton, the celebrity “Librarian in Black” who’s been blogging about this and other issues in the digital age. (And yes, she does own a Kindle!) “I think public outrage may engender a change in corporate policy — if it’s strong enough,” Houghton argues. “It may take a lawsuit, or legislation, but change will occur.”

Sadly, many libraries have reduced their hours — and digital lending seems to offer an attractive solution. (“Now people can use the library whenever they need to,” one local librarian tells the newsweekly.) And the librarian also believes that small publishers may also benefit from library e-book lending, because it gives new customers an easy way to find their books. That’s especially true if the larger publishers refuse to participate in the libraries’ e-book lending programs.

But the article also raised the possibility that some library patrons may feel left behind. A library in Rockford, Illinois is spending 25% of its book budget on e-books, while one California librarian expects to spend 30% of their budget on e-books in the years to come. Ultimately the article suggests a question which never occurred to me.

Does that mean fewer books will be available for those patrons who can’t afford a digital reader?

Librarian in Black Sarah Houghton


A California librarian is raising her voice about what she sees as issues in Amazon’s new program for checking out library ebooks on a Kindle. “I’m very, very disturbed about the new Kindle lending practice that Overdrive has implemented,” she explained Tuesday in an impassioned, 10-minute video online. “It’s a new service. It’s something a lot of libraries are very excited about, and with good reason.

“But there’s a lot going on here that I think library staff are not necessarily aware of or have really thought through.”

She’s calling on librarians to complain to their Overdrive reps — and directly to Amazon. (To watch the video, point your computer’s web browser to tinyurl.com/LibraryResponse .) Her basic issue is that librarians should always protect their customers’ reading history, but now Amazon’s getting that data on their own servers (which may even violate California’s newly-passed “Reader Privacy Act.”) And she also notes that many libraries have strict policies against endorsing a particular product, whereas Overdrive’s program actually completes their transactions on Amazon.com, including a pitch that urges library patrons to purchase more books. (And there’s even book-buying plugs in your “due date” reminders.)

I’m a big fan of the Kindle — and ebooks — and to be fair, it sounds like she is too. She bought a Kindle last December, and wrote a blog post soon after titled “Why I am a library traitor and love the Kindle.” At the time she noted her issues with the Kindle as a librarian — that e-book sharing was limited, and that library lending wasn’t available. Those are two areas where Amazon has since made some big improvements, and she honestly went back and updated the blog post. It shows that this reaction is coming from a Kindle lover who feels forced to acknowledge that “in our greedy attempt to get content into our users’ hands, we have failed to uphold the highest principle of our profession, which is intellectual freedom. And that’s not acceptable.”


“Kindle has allowed Amazon to harvest all of this borrowing data. So it’s an instant violation of all of our privacy policies…. [I]f they’re using a Kindle, Amazon’s keeping friggin’ everything. And we haven’t told people that, and we need to tell people that. So one thing here in California, particularly, is that recently a state bill was passed, 602, called the Reader Privacy Act, which states that library use and borrowing habits are protected as are our purchases from bookstores and so forth. Basically, you have the freedom to read what you want, and not be penalized for doing so. And it’s, I’m fairly certain, a very grey area right now that Amazon and Overdrive are in, because Amazon is keeping data on what our customers are borrowing and they’re not really supposed to.

So according to this bill, I might be violating state law simply by putting information out there to people in a format that works with their Kindles. And I haven’t told people this in my library. Because how do you tell people, “Well this great device that works really well, and it’s the smoothest check-out process of any device or format that we offer here in the library — but it violates your privacy, it jeopardizes your intellectual freedom, and, you know, it might kinda be against state law, but I’m not really sure.” How do you say that to people?

But I think it’s important for us as library staff to figure out a way to say it to people, because it’s our job to stand up for their privacy and their reading rights, even when they don’t know when that they’re in jeopardy.

Her video has already drawn some interesting comments — and started a discussion about other issues in Overdrive’s program for lending Kindle ebooks. “Another important problem is that they have not adequately addressed accessibility for screen reader users,” one viewer posted. “Kelly Ford explains some of the problems here: Ensuring non-discriminatory access for library users is just as important as privacy and intellectual freedom.”

And another user noted that library lending faces challenges from some other powerful companies. “Not only is Amazon and Overdrive in control but the publishers should get their share of the blame. If a publisher doesn’t want readers to be able to borrow an ebook, it doesn’t happen. For example, MacMillan and Simon & Schuster have opted out of the lending program. Two of the top six. Of course if you are a self-publisher, good luck even showing on the radar. We know something is up when the top ebook authors are missing from a library catalog: Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and Louise Voss, all top ebook authors are missing from my local library’s catalog.”

I think it’s important to remember that this call to action comes from some who’s committed to reading and to books in some very real world situations. Sarah Houghton — the librarian in the video — is the Assistant Director for the two public libraries in San Rafael, California, and she’s also been writing a blog for eight years called the “Librarian in Black”. Over time, she’s gotten familiar with how a library’s mission can benefit from the arrival of new technologies. She works with state and national library advocacy organizations, and she’s on the ebooks task force for the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy. Libary Journal even named her as a “mover and shaker’ (in their 2009 “trendspotter” category).

If you want to read a complete transcript of Sarah’s video, click here. There’s a little bit of profanity towards the end when she really lays into Overdrive. “You thought, ‘Well, we can tell them what’s going to happen, and they’re going to get mad. Or we can not tell them what’s going to happen, and we can bank on the fact that most of them aren’t going to notice, and the ones who do are probably not going to say very much or be very loud.’

“Well guess what? I’m getting ******* loud!”

To get Amazon’s response, I tried contacting their Kindle-Feedback address, where I received the following response.


Hello,

Thanks for writing about Amazon’s overdrive library lending program.

And I’m very sorry for any inconvenience in this regard. We take these issues very seriously.

I’ve forwarded your message to the appropriate department. Customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide, and we’re glad you took time to write to us.

We look forward to seeing you again.

Thank you for your recent inquiry. Did I solve your problem?

If yes, please click here…

sarahinred - librarian Sarah Houghton
Image of Sarah Houhgton by Peter Martin Jorgensen

Banned Books Rescued by Kindle

September 27th, 2011

Banned Books Week - ALA banner

It’s “banned books week,” the annual event recognizing that books are still being censored. Every year the American Library Association reports on the most-frequently challenged books all across the country. And every year, I calculate how many of those books are still available on the Kindle…

Surprisingly, it turns out that some of them are even best-sellers in Amazon’s Kindle store! Stephenie Meyer’s popular novel Twilight was also one of the ten most-challenged books last year (and in the year before). Currently it’s one of the Kindle Store’s top-500 best-selling books — even four years after it was published! And Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games also made it onto the list of the year’s ten most-challenged books, even though in Amazon’s Kindle store it’s spent an entire year and a half in the top 100 best-selling ebooks!

It turns out that this year, more than twice as many banned books are available for the Kindle than there were last year. In fact, last year, I’d discovered that you could only download three of the 10 most-challenged books to your Kindle. This year, there’s only three ebooks that you can’t download to your Kindle. Unfortunately, one of them is this year’s most-challenged book — a children’s picture book about two penguins at a zoo at New York. (“And Tango Makes Three” is based on a true story of a same-sex penguin couple who hatch raise a penguin chick.) And the second most-challenged book is also unavailable in the Kindle store. It’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” — a 240-page novel about a teenager who leaves an Indian reservation in Washington to attend a more affluent school.

But seven of the 10 most-challenged books are available on your Kindle — and in some cases, they’re even cheaper than the paperback editions!

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley;
Crank, by Ellen Hopkins;
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins;
Lush, by Natasha Friend;
What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones;
Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich;
Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

The only other title that’s not available as an ebook is “Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology.” But it’s also tricky to find a print copy. (New ones are priced at $294.95, and and even used copies are selling for $63.04.) I like to think that the availability of all the other titles suggests the Kindle might have a role to play in fighting the censorship of books.

Banned Books Covers (from ALA)

And there’s one more very interesting statistic. Last year there were seven books on the most-challenged list which weren’t available as Kindle ebooks. One year later, five of those seven books are still not available on the Kindle. But two more have come out in Kindle editions — including a sometimes-humorous teen novel called “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.” And The Color Purple is also finally available on the Kindle.

Last Wednesday, a Kindle edition became available for the very first time…