For most of my awkward life, books have been a way to escape or avoid stressful social interactions. Only recently have I realized that books also allow me to serve a social function: recommending titles to friends and family members, based on my understanding of their interests and character. Some people find book suggestions obnoxious and presumptuous, but in my experience, some carefully thought-out picks can transform a nonreader into a book liker, if not a book lover. When a friend raves about a book and asks me to suggest another, I gloat a bit and then attack my shelves, to find another delightful tome to pass on.
But the e-reader! Oh, the e-reader. The Kindle is a childhood dream come true, an opportunity to carry with me enough titles to assure that if I finish a book, I will not be left to make uncomfortable small-talk on the plane. But it is ruining the one bit of social currency I can offer. In only limited circumstances can one lend a book to a friend, and when you are attempting to convert a nonreader, being able to give them the book instantly, for free, is vital.
Of course, e-book lending is a fraught topic for publishers and public libraries. In May 2013, the divine Ursula K. Le Guin laid out the absurd terms on which the “big five” publishers permit digital titles to be lent. But slowly, that situation is getting better; some months after Le Guin wrote her pierce, Macmillan announced that it would make its full backlist available. HarperCollins still demands that library obliterate a digital copy of a book after it’s been lent 26 times, which is an abomination. Still, this isn’t likely to last much longer; as Cory Doctorow detailed in a convincing column in September 2013, it’s in the best interest of the publishers to make libraries their allies.
But even as publishers and libraries warily come to agreements—slowly though they might—person-to-person lending remains nigh impossible. On the Kindle, for instance, digital rights management sometimes permits owners to lend a title—but only once per book. Most books don’t permit sharing at all.
Publishers’ concerns about consumers lending books to people they don’t know through book-swap sites could be ameliorated: For instance, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici has proposed a self-described “pretty good solution” that would entail people meeting in person, physically, to “bump” titles from one device to another. True, that would require social interaction, but I think I could handle that brief encounter.
Without creating a mutually acceptable way to permit easier, more widespread book sharing, the personal social networks that exist between readers will fray. While Americans continue to read at about the same pace as in years prior, the rate of e-book reading continues to rise, according to the Pew Research Center. The rise in digital book consumption is particularly sharp among 18- to 29-year-olds. This is despite the death of the e-reader, which websites have been predicting since at least 2011. Even if tablets render my beloved Kindle obsolete, e-book reading will continue to grow. Permitting readers to swap titles will only accelerate that adoption, not diminish it. Because reading truly is a social activity, no matter how solitary the individual curled up with a book may appear. One could even make notes or highlights with a particular fellow-reader in mind, then delete them or adjust them for subsequent borrowers. This would only complement the strong social networks for readers that have cropped up online.
So please, publishers. Don’t take away my only bit of social utility.