I’ve been boycotting Amazon for its tax avoidance for ages now. Rather, I ought to say, boycotting it on and off. This year, in order to best deploy my resources on having a decent pre-Christmas with my parents (especially following my Mum’s recent illness) I’ve permitted myself a couple of moral lapses: driving to my in-laws to avoid dealing with the usual new-year train company outages; and shopping for one or two things on Amazon.
Now that the tax loophole that it benefits from is being sewn up, Amazon might be regarded in a different light anyway. But that legislation is far from being passed; besides, posts like this one imply that engaging with companies purely as a consumer does nothing to solve the underlying moral problem.
After all, legislation or no legislation, Amazon presumably continues to be the kind of entity that professes itself to be a haven of literacy while wishing to avoid tax to the best of its abilities. This means the state misses out on funds which might have stopped some of our libraries from closing recently (or at least not provided those ideological closures with plausible public excuses.) But then Amazon is a publicly listed company, and any claims to social good must needs be smokescreens, intended to distract customers from its directors’ very much legal responsibilities to remunerate shareholders, so that the remuneration itself is not jeopardized.
Bringing Amazon and reading into close proximity brings me neatly onto the Kindle, Amazon’s e-book tablet. I would never have considered buying one for myself or anyone else in a million years. Rationally, maybe I should have done: the hardware is probably a loss leader, losing money at the point of sale in order to lock the owner into using Amazon. But the normalisation of their product, plus the likelihood of one leading me to purchase more from Amazon over time: all this has troubled me enough to avoid the technology.
Which is why it was a stroke of extraordinarily good fortune – or perhaps call it a “stroke of good will” – that the very generous company I work for bought each employee a Kindle as a Christmas present. All of the functional toy; none of the ethicofinancial guilt! And so I’ve been able to both try out a platform that was new to me – always useful in my line of work – and also stock up on things I’ve wanted to read for years.
The technology is generally good. E Ink is very easy on the eyes; readable and – if not yet literally – flexible. Paging through a long text needs a bit of practice but becomes second nature. The built-in web browser is appalling, though, and the weird non-QWERTY graphical keyboard (that comes with the Kindle 4, at any rate) is just unusable. The books, on the other hand…. Well, so far I’ve acquired dozens of them, without having to go to the Amazon store once.
This is the guilty secret of e-books, of course: for every Dan Brown brain-melter that you have to pay for, there’s a Conan Doyle available for free that won’t make you want to hurl the book or your e-reader across the room; for every Crimson Petal and the White that you spend money on and wonder why the author bothered, let alone you the reader, there’s a free David Copperfield, a free Bleak House, a free Oliver Twist. And they’re all on the amazing if unprepossessing Project Gutenberg site, which is of course named after one of the early innovators of moveable type.
So when Jeff Bezos bangs on about improving literacy, or freeing the printed word, or simply getting people to read more books…. Remember that the real democratization of literacy was achieved by the printing press, the lending library, the Internet. The Kindle is just another cauldron, this one made of cold rather than hot metal; the real magic of reading, that you think is being brewed in that cauldron, is actually “poured out in inexhaustible streams” by organizations like Project Gutenberg; and for free.