Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

Summary: I am worried that, unless we do something to actively make sure twentieth century literature gets moved into the Kindle format, it might be lost.


It seems to be nostalgia-over-books week here at ZDNet. This week, my fellow bloggers have been mourning over the recent news of the demise of Borders Books, and writing other book-related stories.

Sure, that's sad. But I'm afraid it could be much worse than the death of the large brick-and-mortar bookstores, that killed the small mom-and-pop bookstores, only to make room for the mighty Amazon. The outcome of that battle was decided in our culture so long ago that most of us can no longer be guilted about shopping there.

I am worried that, unless we do something to actively make sure twentieth century literature gets moved into the Kindle format, it might be lost.

People are downsizing and getting rid of old books

Everywhere I go, people are telling me that they're downsizing, which includes getting rid of a lot of their old books. I'm doing it, too.

I just moved into a smaller place. I made the difficult decision to get rid of several thousand pounds of books I'd lugged with me each and every time I moved, ever since I was a teenager. As a lifelong, avid reader, I loved those books. I'd added scores of new books to my library along the way.

As much as I considered those books to be treasures, and despite the admonishment I grew up with that it was a grievous crime to throw away a book, I actually had to recycle many of my old friends.

I found out that they're really hard to donate.

Libraries don't want old books! That really surprised me. It's gotten very hard to find people and organizations to take boxes of books.

The trend in downsizing is partly to do with rising heating and cooling costs. Although books provide insulation (an excuse that I, as a bibliophile, often used to justify keeping wall-to-wall bookcases), people are starting to find it expensive to keep them around because they take up a lot of space.

These days, people are letting the cloud store physical goods. The books people are keeping around are just getting older and moldier.

Allergies abound

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, a large percentage of people in the general populace are allergic to dust mites and mold, and almost all asthma sufferers have to contend with these allergies in addition to the other things that assault their airways. Asthma itself is on the increase.

Some of the books I let go of weren't in perfect condition. I'd read many of them multiple times. I'd purchased a good number of them from used bookstores to begin with. Their pages were dog-eared and yellowed. Some were actually crumbling.

Also, I've lived in some tropical climates and I haven't always had air conditioning. At one point I had to carefully box up my books and store them in a friend's basement for a year and a half while I was living in Hawaii. More than a few of my dear old books had attained a slightly musty odor, vaguely reminiscent (or so I told myself) of an old wizard's library in a fairy tale.

Our homes are our castles, and we all want to hold onto our prized possessions. However, doctors often recommend that people suffering from allergies and asthma avoid accumulating items that gather dust, especially in areas where you sleep.

Ironically, once dust reaches critical mass, the more often you wave your magic dusting wand and stir up the dust you're trying to remove, the more often you're likely to sound like Sir Sneeze-a-lot or Lady Wheeze-a-lot.

In all seriousness, though, airway compromise is no joke. Sneezing is one thing, but contact with allergens can send an asthma sufferer into an attack within seconds, which is not only frightening, but life threatening as irritated airways tighten and cut off oxygen.

Also, used books can be hazardous for people who are allergic to animal dander. It's not always possible to be sure that the used book you're buying has always been in a pet-free zone. People with animal allergies may break out in hives and rashes, and have breathing difficulties, which makes every used book a potential hazard, and better off avoided.

I have to admit I don't sneeze quite as often now that I've removed loads of allergens from my atmosphere.

Next: The great ebook reading experience »

« Previous: Clutter and allergens

The ebook reading experience is just so great

Presbyopia (literally "old eyes") is sometimes considered a not so subtle reminder of reaching middle age. Many people don't like to wear reading glasses, citing inconvenience, headaches, and vanity as a few of the reasons why they avoid them (which also tells you why 3D TV may never be accepted by middle-agers).

Instead of the limited supply of large print books (often abridged for space considerations), to which our our elders had to resort, we have the Kindle, iPad, and other ebook readers. We can enlarge the type. If our eyes are feeling strained, we can kick back, close our eyes, and let the Kindle's friendly, computerized voice read to us like a robotic nanny.

Amazon's Kindle software runs on just about any platform, so we can pick up where we left off in the story from our phones, our computers, our iPads -- you name it. I expect to one day be reading them on my toaster!

It's also comparatively easy to hold a Kindle. There's no difficulty in trying to read without breaking its spine. The Kindle is thin, with a flat, crisp screen. It's way better than trying to hold a book in one hand, at the right focal distance, without being annoyed by hand discomfort and book pages that are bent, curved, warped, folded, spindled, mutilated, or torn. With synchronization, that bookmark that keeps falling out is no longer a problem.

These are a few of the Kindle's features and benefits that really rekindled my love of reading -- which I hadn't even realized had fallen off a bit when my eyesight started to change in middle age.

It's what finally made it okay for me to let go of my vast library of hardback and paperback books. That, and the fact that I promised myself that if I wanted to reread something I'd gotten rid of, I could just go ahead and buy it in Kindle format and read it.

At first, I busied myself with the myriad of free classics. They're available because they are past their copyright dates, have mostly been resurrected by Project Gutenberg, and are free in Kindle format.

Then, I received a link via email to BiblioQuest International's, which lets you find out what books were on the New York Times best sellers list the week you were born. Just put in your birth date (day first, then month, then year), and the list pops up.

My husband and I spent an amusing afternoon checking out the books that marked our respective birth weeks.

I then decided to visit Amazon and check availability because I'd never gotten around to reading some of these fine, twentieth century American classics, and they sounded like great reads.

I was stunned.

Some were available in paperback or hardbound formats, for a penny (shipping costs much more than the book!) from numerous Amazon resellers. Some were available for a pretty penny (one was about $250). Only four or five of the 20 works of fiction on both of our lists, combined, were available in Kindle format.

These were not exactly obscure tomes.

They are books on the freakin' New York Times best sellers list in the latter half of the twentieth century. And they can't be had in a non-dust-ridden form factor. And don't think this isn't true of more recently published books, like books from the 1990s, either. Many of those also aren't available in Kindle format.

I'm kind of hoping it'll be like CDs and DVDs were at first. Many movies were only available on VHS, but as time has gone on, more and more things have been released on DVD, and more and more classic albums have been remastered and released on CD. Still, as we all know, many old favorites have not. Plus, I would be remiss not to mention that these are dying formats, too.

I believe it's possible that many great twentieth century books will simply be lost to time.

That's a shame. Sure, things are tantalizingly partially readable on Google Books, but this simply drives resale of physical books, which do have, pardon the obvious pun, a shelf-life.

The twentieth century was a time in history when there was an amazing confluence of creativity, publishing capability, distribution reach, and literacy. Plus, there was enough chaos in the times to produce some amazing stories, and enough societal openness to allow them to be addressed in a mass market.

I'm very concerned that publishers will not make their backlists available in Kindle format.

Many of the publishers may be out of business, but the copyrights are still held by someone. Conversion is a bit of effort, especially if there isn't an original digital version. Monetizing the project could be a challenge. Even so, there's no production, printing, shipping or storage when it comes to selling in the Kindle format. It's just dump it up on Amazon, charge a small amount (it could be a nice annuity over time) and save it for the future.

See also:

Can we make this happen? Can we save the great books of the last century? Any ideas on how would incentivize it? Share your ideas in the TalkBacks below.

Topics: Mobility, Amazon, Hardware


Denise Amrich is a Registered Nurse, the health care advisor for the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, and a mentor for the Virtual Campus at Florida's Brevard Community College.

Nothing in this article is meant to be a substitute for medical advice, and shouldn't be considered as such. If you are in need of medical help, please see your doctor.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

    Sad but true.
    I have a significant physical library at home and more and more of my selections are being changed to electronic format. This especially holds true for new books.
    Sometimes though, the heft and feel of a real paper book is something that you need to have.
    This environment is a bit chaotic atm although I do believe physical print is in the die off stage.
    Will I always have some sort of paper based library?
    Yes. My walls of books will and are being reduced to a few smaller bookcases. :(
  • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

    Great article; and yes it is sad but true. A 2nd hand printed book is worth almost nothing, unless it is a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Basically, I'm now at the cross-roads. Shall I still buy cheap 2nd hand copies of books or wait (for ever, or for nothing) until they become available for the Kindle? And should I still buy the latest bestsellers in paper format or wait until those idiotic international copyright owners finally get their act together and offer the e-book versions outside the USA?

    Nowadays, I do prefer e-books and wish I could replace all my printed books by them (saves lots of space). However that might be just a dream, because like you, I?m also very concerned that publishers will not make their backlists available in Kindle format.
  • The dirty secret of copyright extension

    The general concept behind copyright was that it balanced the need to encourage people to produce works of value against the benefit of preserving knowledge in the public domain. But that balance was destroyed when copyrights were extended to insane lengths, mainly to benefit a few large corporate copyright holders.

    Most content producers consider older works to be "competition" that drives down revenue for new works. It is in their interests to see that older works are "lost" and unavailable for use by the general public, and they do whatever they can to make older works unavailable or at least unattractive to consumers. We now live in an age where everything is "disposable" including knowledge and art. In theory institutions like the Library of Congress are supposed to protect from this loss, but they are beholden to politicians and corporate influence just like all other aspects of our government and society.
    terry flores
    • As I've long suspected

      @terry flores <br>But it's the first time I've seen this particular explanation in print. Interestingly enough, I have a growing collection of e-books on my cell phone, but they're all public domain, as I avoid DRM like the plague.
      John L. Ries
    • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

      @terry flores It's unfortunate what is happening with some of our nations most treasured libraries. Some molds that grow on library collections pose a health hazard to people. <a style="text-decoration: none; color: #333333;" href="">Mold Tampa</a> spores are introduced to the human body by inhalation and through small breaks in the skin.<br><br>Although serious consequences are rare, active mold can cause respiratory problems, skin and eye irritation, and infections. I think some libraries may have to form their own mold removal department!
  • Snort

    Kindle's format isn't exactly widespread, or the best choice. E-Pub is far better since a far broader array of devices and programs can read and write it.

    Besides, 20'th centure literature is a pretty damn broad target for annihilation don't you think?

    Other than the two core ideas in your article being complete and utter hog swallop, nice article...
  • Copyright Law Is To Blame For The Lack Of Digital Distribution

    With the term of Copyright being "Life of the author plus seventy years" nothing published in your lifetime will ever pass into the public domain. If books and movies were in the public domain companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google could make them available in digital format without any legal encumbrance.

    As long as Copyright remains a ludicrously long monopoly then, as you said, "many great twentieth century books will simply be lost to time."
    • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

      @sismoc This!

      Classic example of a reader's answer being incredibly more useful than the hyperbolic and rather useless article of an obvious kindle-centric user.
      • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

        @Bodazapha Are we just a little grumpy today?
    • Right. Because we all know that books simply dissappear

      into dust after ten years.
      • More Like Thirty to One Hundred

        @fr_gough <br>Since they've been publishing stuff on wood pulp paper instead of rag (around the beginning of the twentieth century), books disappear into dust between about thirty and one hundred years after they are printed depending on the quality of the paper and environmental conditions. Edit: If you are curious about the difference between rag paper and wood pulp paper, you should realize that paper money in a lot of countries, and a lot of artist's paper pads are still made from rag paper.<br><br>There is actually a lot of concern about this and societies for the preservation of literature are trying to see that a lot of these books get copied to digital format before they crumble (from which they can always be reprinted if desired).<br><br>Of course, the insanely long copyright terms that were extended toward the end of the twentieth century makes this more problematic. It seems that most people don't realize that if copyright terms were the same length as before 1976, everything published before 1955 would now be in the public domain. It would be much easier to preserve both books and movies if they had entered the public domain at a reasonable point in time rather than after their publishers had lost interest in them or even purposely prevented further copies being made because (gasp) it might compete with new material.<br><br>With just a few exceptions that fell through the cracks of the legislation, corporations have managed to rob the public domain of many new additions published later than 1920. In robbing the public domain they are stealing from, you guessed it, the public, and all under the guise that otherwise the public would be 'stealing' from them.
  • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

    Forget Kindle format, what about epub format? Enough with the proprietary formats. We should be concerned about making books available electronically in a format that everyone can access regardless of platform and device. It's shameful that Amazon has not made the Kindle compatible with epub. That's the single biggest reason why I would never buy one regardless of how good the device is.
    • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

      @sg60@... Just use Calibre and make ePub compatible with mobi. Thats what I do.
  • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

    Just because a book isn't available in one particular format doesn't mean it's gone forever. Let's say all the classic literature in the world was converted to Kindle, and then the Kindle went away. You'd still be bemoaning the loss of classic literature. In reality, paper is a guarantee against loss.

    Oh, and being on the NYT best seller list and being classic literature are not the same thing. "Mutually exclusive" comes to mind.
    • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

      @Vesicant I agree; the need to over exaggerate the finality implied in the adoption of any change in our societal records-keeping, text book styling or library's filing always sounds very dumb every time another person cries, "Book Burning!" while blogging online.
  • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

    We humans always tend to bemoan change ... books brought about the nearly complete demise of verbal storytelling ... and so it goes. Change happens. I happen to love paper and electronic books and have many of both. As technologies expand, each one seems to find the place that makes the most sense in the overall scheme of things. We started using charcoal on cave walls to express our thoughts and feelings a LONG time back ... and you can still buy charcoal for drawing in art stores today. More tools isn't a bad thing.
    Trep Ford
    • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

      @Trep Ford I just wish they wouldn't be such tools when they use them on the road or at work. This isn't the best way to keep your brain at it's sharpest potential when a drive 30 minutes from home requires GPS or a cell phone must be answered every time it rings as though the owner were beholden to it's little bell (or really obnoxious ringtone) regardless of how rude and self centered such an act really is to anyone in their face to face contact at the time.
    • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

      @Trep Ford Verbal storytelling is always alive and well in all music the world over.
  • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

    I'm sure that books will not disappear just as Kindle will stick around so long as our whole digital and electronic communications and (half the time) life enhancing network is not irreparably destroyed in some big way due to our lack of evolving-as-humans failure to check the younguns' annoying Anarchy phase. I'm sure you will always find a pair of eyes to help you enjoy reading if kindle cannot accommodate your every literary interest. Let's try to pretend that we could actually live without these conveniences if we had to without becoming helpless, crying infants.
  • RE: Allergies, Kindle, and the death of twentieth century literature

    As for really old, dusty and slightly mildewed books, my mom's copy of Leaves of Grass has the most biased, silly and obviously envious Preface written by a less successful writer pre-twentieth century that I've come to really enjoy when reading really old printings of books she has managed to save. None of the modern printings have those little human touches anymore.