Thursday, May 30, 2013

An Open Love Letter to Amazon, or Why It's A Great Time To Be A Reader

When I was growing up, there was a small B. Dalton bookshop and an exceedingly small branch library that were close enough for my mom to take me to in the rather scary area where I grew up, at the Christown Mall. (The police still don't go near my neighborhood without air support. Really. The Alhambra District in Phoenix, AZ.) The libraries in my elementary and high schools were tiny and terrible. That was all I knew, so I stalked those two places. There were no independent book stores that I could go to. I'd pretty much read everything in the library by the time I was 10. I never read classics or anything particularly new. Our branch library had "Little Men" but not "Little Women." B. Dalton got new stuff in, but I wasn't allowed to buy hardbacks because the family budget was limited.  I had heard of a lot of books and writers that I had never seen, and of course the B. Dalton stocked little midlist and almost no backlist. I managed to find major writers at B. Dalton: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, etc. I don't remember who else.

When I was in high school, the first Barnes and Noble opened near enough to us, at Metrocenter, and I went nuts. They had low-priced classics via the B&N imprint. I had never seen an actual book by Jane Austen or Tolstoy, though I had heard of them. I had heard of Sherlock Holmes but never seen any of Doyle's books. or Agatha Christie. Or any modern non-fiction science books. Seriously, I looked like Tinkerbell flying around in there. I got a part-time job to support my book habit. My mother worried about hoarding. I bought The Pugilist at Rest, a collection of short stories by Thom Jones, at the B&N at Metrocenter, and that book was the reason I applied to the Iowa MFA program, to study with Thom.

I found Amazon in 1995, within a month or two of its debut.  I still remember clicking through it for the first time. I had a panic attack. I actually had to walk away from the computer to compose myself. I was shaking so hard when I saw all those books that I had heard of,--classics, backlist titles, series titles that I had missed, so many books!--and I had to do was click, and they arrived. I found books that I should have known about but hadn't. They had every book by Jane Austen, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and so many other writers that I had heard about but never seen in print. I had heard the name "Nabokov" in a song by The Police, but I had never seen Lolita. I had never seen a book by Virginia Woolf. Shipping was free if you ordered more than $100 worth, and I always ordered more than $100 worth. And the prices were lower! I couldn't believe how many books I got for $100!

And now, Kindle. Free classics and other books. Lower-priced ebooks. Instant delivery. I read a lot of books that I adore but would have never been published by traditional publishers because they're too niche, and I am so in that niche. Over half the books I buy are "indie," or independently published. The five best books that I read last year were indie. (The five worst books that I read last year were all traditionally published.) I can carry 200 books in my purse.I can find new writers, lots of them. I can buy a whole series by a new writer, including stuff that was originally published a decade or more ago. I can read Aristotle's Poetics on my phone. I can instantly read full-color non-fiction on my (Kid's) Kindle Fire. I love my "old-fashioned" ereader Kindle because it strains my eyes less than a printed book.

Plus, no one can see my hoard, so I don't have a problem, right?

As a writer, I love and use Amazon.

As a reader, Amazon changed my life.

It feels like when I got a car for the first time, and I was free to drive anywhere you want to.

Or like when I got glasses for the first time, and I realized that trees have leaves, not just green smears, and that the streets went a lot farther than I had thought they did.

Or the first time I got a passport, when I thought, I can go anywhere on the planet, anywhere. I am no longer confined by mere borders. 

Or the first time I hooked my computer up to the internet (1994) and found a whole, new world through my text-based browser that I had never knew existed, where people shared everything they knew.

Or when soon after that, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) told me about a secret, magic mantra called Gayathri Mantra that he knew because he was a high-caste uber-Brahmin priest and had gone through a secret religious ritual and that he would never tell me, and so I found it in fifteen minutes online, with several English translations, to the point where I understood it better than he did. Man, he was pissed.

That's what Amazon feels like to me. It feels like blowing up boundaries. It feels like secret knowledge revealed.

I'm sure that I'm a typical high-volume reader, in that Amazon increased how much I buy and read because it increased the number of books that I have access to. Looking back, I cannot believe some of the crud that I read as a kid and even as a young adult because I had no access to better books. Back then, I even reread crud because I couldn't find anything else to buy. I still reread books, but I reread Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and I reread Lolita by Nabokov, and I reread Jane Austen and Tolstoy. And I read so many new, wonderful, varied books, a kaleidoscope of books, a whole world of books.

As great a time as this is to be a writer, it's a fantastic time to be a reader.

TK Kenyon