September 8, 2019

The eBook Trap


It was in 1997, while reading an advance review copy of Thomas Pynchon’s eight-hundred-page Mason & Dixon, that the eyes at last slipped beyond the point where I could still read traditional books of the standard “ink-on-paper” variety. It was at that point I was forced to forego all the walls of books in my apartment and confront the realities of reading—or something akin to reading—via audiobooks.

            I’d listened to a few audio books prior to that, but never took them seriously as a means of ingesting literature. They were like radio dramas to me, more entertaining than serious. I had tapes of John Cleese reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Leonard Nimoy reading Jules Verne, a few other trifles. But after being forced to acquire the twenty-cassette audio edition of Mason & Dixon in order to finish reading it, I was also forced to accept what lay ahead in terms of me and books. At the time my commercially available audio book choices were limited to bestsellers and a smattering of classics. Mostly bestsellers. Plus they were fucking expensive. As frustrated and disappointed as I was initially by these limitations, it was through audio books that I came to a newfound appreciation of both Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway. Along the way I also listened to an awful lot of dreadful crap, because the majority of what was available to me was dreadful crap.

            Then in the first decade of the twenty-first century, audiobooks as a serious and commercially viable form took off. Suddenly everybody wanted them. I was involved (in an admittedly meager way) in the early stages of producing audio versions of several of Mr. Pynchon’s novels, was launched and went gangbusters, and in a blink things I thought would never be available on audio were suddenly becoming available on audio, like William Gaddis and John Kennedy Toole.

            But you know what? I started to get sick of audio editions of favorite books. I’d heard too many read by people who were the worst possible choice to read this or that book. A Brit reading Henry Miller? Anyone but William Burroughs or Hunter Thompson reading William Burroughs or Hunter Thompson? It was fucking painful. Actors seemed to insist on getting in the way, standing between me and the text. With every new audiobook I acquired, I had to wonder how goddamn annoyed it was going to leave me. On top of that, having to play CDs on the stereo was very limiting. I had to stay in the damn room, and every time I stopped a disc it took too long to find my spot again. It was a pain in the ass, and I was growing weary of it. The simple pleasure of reading, one I’d clung to my entire life, shouldn’t be a pain in the ass.

            Then about a year and a half ago, and with serious and stubborn reservations, my wife and I went to an Apple store and picked up a couple of those Mickey Mouse toys that had so enslaved the populace. The one and only convincing factor was the promise (as confirmed by other blindos I knew) of endless and magical accessibility features that would make my life that much simpler. The desktop Machine where I did all my work was beginning to show its limitations. In theory. I’d be able to bring the toy to the grocery store, point it at a product, and it would tell me what it was. No more coming home with unexpected jars of artichoke hearts in aspic. And that was just one of the many miracles I was promised.

            While trying to figure out what some of these miracles were and how to make them work, Morgan introduced me to the joys of the online version of the Brooklyn Public Library. From the comfort of my comfy chair, I could search their eBook collection, and download the eBooks I wanted neat as can be with the click of a couple of buttons. I’d always resisted eBooks, but never knew why. Now I found that with the screen reader on this new toy, eBooks were not only a breeze, but I could do away with those stupid meddling actors getting in the way of the books with their asinine “acting.” It was a clear, emotionless computer-generated voice simply reading the words as written. It was perfect and easy. Of all the accessibility blessings I’d been promised, this one was key.

            At the time I was prepping for an interview with writer Nick Tosches, so I borrowed all the Tosches books the library had to offer (four of them), and raced through them at a gulp. Then when the interview was postponed for a year or more, I found myself prepping for a humanities class I was supposed to start teaching in a few months. I went to the online library once again and borrowed and read everything I’d included on the proposed syllabus. They had everything. Much to my amazement, they even had on their digital shelves a few of the more obscure conspiracy books I was hoping to use.

            It was all quite splendid. When the day’s work was done, I’d grab a beer, open up the eBook app on the Mickey Mouse toy, plug in an earphone so the yapping wouldn’t bother Morgan, and I was good to go for the next few hours. It was as close to the real act of reading as I’d experienced in over two decades. My standard daily dose of a movie or two completely vanished, traded back out for books. Couldn’t see movies anymore either, and the toy wasn’t nearly so helpful with those.

            Well, after the teaching thing collapsed (thank god) and I wasn’t doing any more research for anything pressing, I was on my own.

            Suddenly with no boundaries, I wanted to read everything at once—things I knew well but wanted to re-experience, things I never had the chance to read before but always wanted to, and things I’d never heard of that seemed potentially interesting. So I went on a Jim Thompson jag and a Hubert Selby bender, read a bunch of books about Nixon, threw in some Vonnegut and Mailer and Pynchon, some history and philosophy and some classic works about mass hysteria.

            It wasn’t long, though, before I found I was exhausting the library’s resources, at least as they applied to me. In some cases they only had one book by an author I was interested in, or none at all, or not the one I was looking for, or the one that I wanted inevitably came with an eternal waiting list. It forced me to take a very dangerous turn.

            The commercial sites that offered eBooks were right there, right? And they worked in the same way. It was just more expensive. In fact by this point the prices of eBooks were edging up toward what I used to pay for real books (which is insane), and there was no option to pick up used copies. So I grabbed a couple of things I wanted to read, and a few others I knew had to be in the new permanent collection. Things that weren’t available through the library were available—well, mostly available, anyway—elsewhere for a price, but a price I could rationalize away.

            The eBook library continued to grow, but until yesterday a fundamental thought never occurred to me.

            I decided to take a look and see what Louis Ferdinand Celine titles were available in eBook editions. Despite eBooks and audio being the big hot thing, I’d been disappointed in the past to find only a small percentage of an author’s work available in digital form. In Tosches’ case, for instance, only a quarter of his published books were available. In fact his two most popular books—biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin—were unavailable, which is simply baffling. With other authors you could get the basics, but not the more obscure titles. I didn’t hold out much hope for Celine, who was trouble enough trying to find in regular paper editions.

            Well, although most everything was available, it was only available in French. Great. But they did have his first two (and most popular) novels, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan in translation, so that was a start. But then as the screen reader ran down the list of available (French) titles, I came across something I wasn’t expecting at all, and stopped.

            Okay, in 1937, Celine published Bagatelles pour un massacre, the first of three notorious anti-Semitic pamphlets he would publish between 1937 and 1941. They were actually far more, and far more complicated than merely anti-Semitic. He hurled vitriol at the French, the Germans, communists, the English, Jesuits and a slew of others along the way, but his primary focus was the Jews, so this is how the screeds are remembered today. The pamphlets, particularly Bagatelles, not only destroyed his career, but were used as evidence against him after the war, when he was tried, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death for collaborating with the Germans. The death sentence was later commuted, but he was officially labeled a national disgrace. Although he would publish any number of other works until his death in 1961, after the end of the war the pamphlets vanished.

            They remained unavailable in any form for nearly seventy years, not because they’d been banned, but because Celine’s widow held onto the rights and wouldn’t let them go. Even if she had, publishers were too gutless to even consider releasing the material, given the backlash that would follow. And they had never, ever been translated into English, which is why this discovery on Amazon was so shocking. I have an extensive Celine collection on the shelf behind me as I type. Over the years I’ve acquired any number of rarities, but those three pamphlets have always eluded me.

            Well, right there on the screen, Amazon was offering an eBook edition of Bagatelles pour un massacre, translated as Trifles for a Massacre. What the fuck? Without a thought, I bought it, only to learn later it had been released by a White Supremacist publishing house. And you know what? I don’t give a fuck. It’s a hugely important work, never previously available, a book I’d been after for thirty years, so if a bunch of Neo-Nazis are the only ones who are going to release it, I’m going to buy it from them. And fuck you.

            The moment I downloaded the eBook, I was glad I did, because as soon as someone catches a whiff that it’s out there and who’s putting it out there—right there on Amazon where kids and everyone can see it—it’s going to vanish.

            But now I have it, and only have to wait patiently for Celine’s other dozen or so novels (which have been translated and released in the States) to come out in eBook editions.

            It was also at that moment that I realized the awful truth. I was in a position now where I had to, yes, buy eBook editions of every last stinking book in my library. Not just the ones I have now, but the thousands that were lost in the floods as well. And goddammit, if someone’s not publishing eBook editions of mid-seventies movie novelizations, I’m, gonna be fucking pissed.

            It’s going to cost a mint to replace everything—the complete works of Beckett, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Pynchon, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Burroughs, Flannery O’Conner, Thurber, Nietzsche, Dante, Milton, and so many others, but it’ll give me something to do, at least until the grid goes down once and for all.


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