Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Digital Divide Just Got a Bit Narrower

    Much of the buzz surrounding the announcements of Amazon's new Kindle devices is understandably focused on the tablet device, the $199 Kindle Fire.  Overlooked a bit is the low-end model, a bare-bones wi-fi ready, e-ink screen Kindle that can be had for as little as $79.  A decent pair of Nikes will set you back more than that.
    For as little as that, you get an electronic bookcase that can hold more than a thousand ebooks.
    Of course, there's still the matter of content.  Getting the books to put in the bookcase will cost plenty, though, right?  Well, that's true if the content you want consists of new books.  But think for a minute about content that isn't current.
    One of the country's premier liberal arts colleges is St. John's, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe.  It's known as The Great Books College -- every student goes through the same curriculum, and the reading list is a demanding one.  For a look at the list go to
    The education you'd get at a college like St. John's will come from class discussion of the readings as well as from the books themselves, but the readings form the heart of it.
    Just for fun, pick some titles from the reading list and search for them in the Amazon Kindle store; sort the results of your searches by price-low-to-high.  You'll find that there are free editions available for quite a few of these titles.  If you search for the contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World set (54 volumes in its earlier edition, and 60 volumes in the more recent incarnation; for a list of titles included go to, you'll find a number of the titles included in that set also have free editions available in the Kindle store.  A search for many of the books listed in titles like How to Read a Book or The Lifetime Reading Plan, or included in sets like the Harvard Classics, will also show a number of free editions.
    Not that long ago, building a home library of the classics would mean shelling out for sets like the Great Books, or purchasing a large number of paperbacks from the Penguin Classics (or Signet, or Bantam, or Modern Library), or scrounging for the titles you wanted in used book shops and library sale tables.  The process would still set you back hundreds of dollars, and maybe a thousand or more, or cost you a long time searching for your books in second-hand sources.  It's possible now to gather a lot of that material in a weekend with an under-$100 ebook reader.
    We've hit the point where almost anyone who really wants to can have available for study at his own pace most of the core titles of western civilization, for about what you'd pay for a pair of running shoes.  That's not the same as actually getting the reading done, of course, but the material just became even more widely accessible than it already was.  A few weeks back, I posted some comments about Cornelius Hirschberg's book on independent learning The Priceless Gift; Hirschberg's account of his own self-education is must reading for the lifelong learner, and the methods he used (as well as quite a few of the books he used) are still appropriate for use today.  If memory serves, Hirschberg died in 1995 so he didn't live to see the ebook revolution really get under way, but I'd bet he would have loved it.

Brief commercial: I've put another short story, "Passenger," up at Amazon and Smashwords (from where it should find its way to Sony, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble some time soon).  Give it a look if you get a chance.

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