Boyd Tonkin: Kindling our debts to the digital elite

The Week In Books

Remember videos? Chunkily packaged to look like books, these plastic cases filled with tape first gave us the idea that films and TV shows could be acquired for enjoyment at will. Often, especially with children's favourites, the ad campaigns would draw on phrases such as "Yours to keep for ever". At the time, that sounded awesome. Yes, you really could buy and store audio-visual entertainment, just as with a book.

Videos went the way of all perishable kit, but time and technology have blown in a very strange reversal. Now, millions of PR dollars try to persuade us to forsake print-on-paper books. Instead, those nice guys at Amazon and Google will let us browse or withdraw titles from their vast virtual libraries - whose standards, rules and fees may change on their whim at any time.

From Monday, Amazon will ship its Kindle electronic reader to non-American customers, offering around 200,000 books via the 3G wireless network but - compared to the US - at a premium price. In Britain, the imported device (at around £175) will join a market crowded with competitors such as the Sony e-reader. Besides, Apple is currently cooking up its "Kindle-killer" tablet-style gizmo as a deadly riposte.

In another part of the electronic wood, Google's plans to digitise libraries and publishers' lists still face tough challenges in the courts of Europe and America. German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in with her doubts about the ambitions of the Google Book Search project prior to this week's Frankfurt Book Fair. An urgent worry is Google's claim to take sole charge of storage and distribution of "orphaned" works with no clear copyright holder.

Open access to reading for ordinary people has partnered the struggle for liberty throughout the world. It is, by the way, a principal theme of Hilary Mantel's Man Booker winner Wolf Hall, in which Thomas Cromwell advocates the right to own and study the vernacular Bible against Thomas More's view that collective control should prevail. But why raise these lofty antecedents in relation to marketplace or courtroom scraps over how many books we can read for free online (Google), or how much we pay to plug into titles from a virtual store (Amazon)?

The answer should be obvious. Google began its breathtaking rights grab over the digital word by assuring us that "we are not evil". This is about trust; more specifically, about the prudence of handing over the keys to the online library to a tiny handful of corporations. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had to grovel when it deleted – of all novels – Orwell's Nineteeen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm from Kindles after a screw-up over licences. That debacle served to warn of the risks of outsourcing delivery of books to foreign entities over whose actions we have no say.

A company is a company. A boardroom coup or a stockmarket slide can change its colours in a trice. Why should Google or Amazon act differently? House your personal library on the servers of the West Coast or the ever-changing hardware that hooks you up with them, and you take a gigantic gamble on the future probity of those who can turn the taps of culture on or off.

Questions of cost and copyright aside, we have no guarantee that remote harvesters and processors of electronic texts will not fall into the hands of censors or bigots. The arguments against over-mighty monoliths in old-style print publishing sound even louder in the digital domain. And we have lately had experience of profit-driven giants who for long years behaved with customers as if they shared a notion of the common good: high-street banks. But they put on two faces, spoke with two voices, and in the end swooned into the arms of the state when a crisis unmasked their hypocrisy. If, at some stage, Google or Amazon go bad or go bust, few people will forfeit life savings. But if we place as much blind faith in them as they now demand, how much cultural capital do we stand to lose?

P.S.Herta Müller - aka Herta Who? in much of the perenially baffled US media - has in fact had more of her work translated and published in the Anglosphere than several other winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As with every author from outside the English language who catches the Swedish limelight, a dedicated offstage team merits applause. In her case, that includes the eagle-eyed Pete Ayrton of Serpent's Tail (which published Müller's The Passport, and re-issues it this month), Margaret Halton – now an agent – who acquired the IMPAC Prize-winning novel The Land of Green Plums for Granta, and of course Müller's translators. On this side of the Atlantic they include Martin Chalmers and Michael Hofmann, two of the most gifted and versatile carriers of modern German writing into English. Glückwünsche all round.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy