Blog Post

Robin Sloan at Prairie Lights: On E-Books and the Kindle

by Alex Boyd

On the second floor of Prairie Lights Bookstore about a dozen, perhaps a bit more, readers and writers sat for a very brief reading by Robin Sloan out of his first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and a more extensive Q&A with him. His book is a crossover of several genres—romance, thriller, adventure, and more—which clash together over the topic of books—bookstores primarily. How appropriate, I thought, looking around at the books all around us.

However, we quickly discovered that Sloan was a big supporter of online/electronic reading.

He went to great lengths to describe his experiences with printed literature, describing his favorite bookstores back home in San Francisco. He also discussed his time in a quaint but dimly lit room in New York City, looking over enormous, medieval-aged books, and went on to describe an image he had of a future where these books were placed next to our own hardcover and then paperback books in historical museums, showing past forms of literature. Then, next in line would be the dreaded Kindle—the next form of reading.

It’s reasonably rare that I hear a writer express support for the Kindle like Sloan did. However, it became clear to me that, rather than active support, he was really expressing acceptance with the change taking place in the publishing industry.

Yes, the Kindle and other forms of technology-savvy reading may be taking away from printed texts, but a panel at the Iowa City Book Festival called “Bookstore Blues.” about a week following Robin Sloan’s reading, expressed a different view: that the Kindle has far from replaced printed literature. Children especially—including young adults of all reading levels—have hardly made the transition from book to e-book. While sales of Kindle texts seem to have plateaued for adult readers at about fifty percent, those for young adult and children’s books are much lower, around ten percent. This, at first glance, could be labeled as a result of children’s inability to afford a Kindle for themselves. However, anyone who has spent time with children in the past few years knows that they have plenty of access to these electronics—smart phones and iPods included— though they seem to be paid for predominantly by their parents. Children have engrossed themselves in technology on a national scale, but it seems that young readers haven’t.

Sloan seems content with the possibility of Kindles becoming simply the new form of reading, but, given that adults seem to be the most common supporters, perhaps the irony of seeing a book like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore only in e-book form will never come to fruition.

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