Okay - I promise I'll shut up about the Kindle ebook reader. Soon. Probably. Or at least until I actually get the chance to play with one. However, some final-ish thoughts on the matter.
Yes, there are issues relating to the storing of personal data. Amazon, however, appear to have a reputation for telling lawyers and US governmental bodies exactly where to get off when it comes to trying to obtain customer data. And while it's true that some data could potentially be used to aid human rights violations in the near or more distant future - and already has been in some parts of the world (hello, Yahoo) - a government sufficiently determined and willing to ignore individual human rights will always find a means to entrap those it considers a threat, whether real or imagined. Evidence, after all, can be manufactured, exaggerated, implied or outright falsified, and a lack of evidence has never been a barrier to injustice and harassment anywhere in the world. I appreciate there are arguments and counter-arguments and complications beyond my crude analysis, but if it gets to the point where this becomes a serious issue and our rights are sufficiently eroded then, frankly, we're all fucked. And I speak as a citizen of a nation with more CCTV cameras per head of population than anywhere else in the world.
Most people who've seen the Kindle pictured online think it's 'fugly', but only a few who've bought it and started out with that opinion appear to have stuck to their guns. Many appear to find it more appealing once it's in their hands, but certainly not all.
Unfortunately, it's still too expensive to use in the bath. But then, more and more houses appear to have only showers, and no baths. Guess I'm just old fashioned.
As of writing, the Kindle - currently sold out on US Amazon - is going for insane prices on Ebay, often twice or more the retail price, and in some cases upwards of or even over a thousand dollars. I can only scratch my head in wonder.
Ebook readers mean the whole concept of a book being 'in print' or 'out of print' will soon become completely and absolutely meaningless.
People are entirely correct when they say ebook readers will never replace the printed word - in much the same way photography never 'replaced' the art of painting. Instead, the new technology encouraged the growth of new art forms and freed painters from purely representative depictions of the world, allowing for greater experimentation. E-ink readers are a complement to traditional books, not a replacement. Evolution, not stagnation.
And finally - I wondered just how many books I could get for free, CC-licensed and legal, that I could read on an ebook reader of whatever flavour, to help justify the cost of buying one when the time came. The results were surprising. I'm being very selective here - listing only books I want to read that are either out of print, or for sale in hardcopy but also available for free electronically. And I mean books I want to read. Here's a brief list of likely titles I came up with during one of my frequent bouts of procrastination:
Rudy Rucker - Postsingular
Peter Watts - Starfish
Jeffrey Thomas - Deadstock
Richard Kadrey - Metrophage
Nick Mamatas - Move Underground
Marc Horne - Tokyo Zero
Rick Dakan - Geek Mafia
Karl Schroeder - Ventus
Kelly Link - Stranger Things Happen
Robert Shea - All Things are Lights
Chris Roberson - Set the Seas on Fire
Michael Flynn - Eifelheim
Anyone with a passing familiarity with the current state of the genre will recognise most of these titles. They will also recognise the list is far from comprehensive, but certainly subjective. These are mostly books by authors I've never read but would like to read, and haven't yet read because of an unfortunate imbalance between the number of books I would like to buy, and the number of books I can afford to buy. Some of these are authors who write material I'm not sure would appeal to my tastes, but would be willing to sample in the form of a free download. All are freely and legally available for download. There isn't one I want to read on a normal computer screen. But I'd be happy to read them in e-ink.
There are some titles I've not included here I might otherwise have, because I already own them in hardcopy - Charlie Stross' Accelerando, Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End and Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I did some sums and figured out a rough cost of buying the remaining titles in hardcopy - not all in print - came to just about eighty quid, including post and packing for the few that wouldn't have free delivery through Amazon. In other words, almost half the cost of a device like the Kindle when translated into British currency. A few are award-nominated or award-winning novels, or else very well-regarded, plus there's a smattering of non-genre titles I stumbled across that piqued my interest but I wouldn't otherwise have bought because of that whole poverty/cost interface. With the exception of Rucker, I'm familiar with the work of none of these writers. Some off the rest might well turn out not to be of appeal to me. One, for all I know, might turn into my new favourite writer, leading me to buy the rest of their work in hardcopy or paid e-format.
The argument that really swung me around to the idea of perhaps myself putting some work free on the net some time in the future was Doctorow's argument that a writer's greatest enemy is not piracy, but obscurity. I personally wouldn't go so far as putting all my work for free on the net, especially not in an age when the electronic reading experience is beginning to so closely mimic the printed reading experience, but a portion of it? Sure, especially since the evidence appears to be it boosts rather than diminishes sales.
The strength of the argument came to me while in Taiwan; plenty of bookshops, not much in English - and even the translated works of sf, or even of Western fiction in general, were very few in number. A free book out of an author's body of work can be downloaded anywhere, from Brazil to Timbuktoo to Shanghai; any place where books are either scarcely available, or the cost of postage plus that of a book is particularly prohibitive. I found myself considering the usefulness of ebook readers quite a lot during my weeks in Taipei when I realised just how hard it can be to easily get hold of a lot of books outside of a few English-speaking nations (unsurprising really, but you don't think about it until you're confronted with it) without being forced to part with rather more cash than I'm comfortable with.