Delete this book

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Every time I see my living room bookshelf, I feel silly. This is because it's the ultimate poseur bookshelf.

In it is a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Filling two more shelves are the "Great Books," the sort of thing Harold Bloom thinks we should be reading instead of Harry Potter. All are bound like the volumes posed behind injury lawyers in nasty TV ads. There's a stack of old National Geographics. Cheap art books sit by historical atlases, Gray's anatomy and the DSM-IV.

These possessions fill an entire wall. Most of them are pointless, too -- who on Earth reads Euclid? Even interesting ones remain unread. So, I've been talking myself into getting rid of all these tomes and replacing them with a Kindle DX, from Amazon.The first decent electronic book, the Kindle is lightweight, easy on the eyes, and has enough storage to hold thousands of titles. There's a huge online library and built-in Internet: no computer required.

Its utility is such that even curmudgeons who lament the soullessness of screen reading are coming around. It is as beautiful as a book, and yet it is all books.

Today, though, I changed my mind. I won't be eBaying-off the heavies after all. Why? Because Amazon can snoop and shred the books you buy, and that's just too damned creepy for words.

David Pogue. writing in the New York Times, reported that hundreds of customers awoke to find that Amazon remotely deleted books that they'd earlier bought and downloaded. Apparently, the publisher determined that it should not offer those titles, so Amazon logged into Kindles, erased the books, and issued refunds. This was aptly compared to someone sneaking into your house, taking away your books, and leaving a stack of cash on the table.

That George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm were among the wiped books is so funny that it aches. The headlines across the 'net wrote themselves. Down the memory hole!

If this were the only example of this sort of thing, it could be written off as a mistake. But it's just the latest in a series illustrating Amazon's vision for the future of reading.

• First, Amazon selectively disabled text-to-speech. It did this to cosy up to publishers who felt audiobook sales were threatened by the Kindle's robotic enunciation. This mocks the blind and supports an ugly interpretation of the law, which would make reading to your own children an act of copyright infringement.

• Amazon also refuses to disclose the circumstances under which it will no longer allow you to download copies of books you have bought. Cory's been stonewalled, by one spokesdroid after another, which would be comical were it not so absurd.

• The Author's contract for Kindle publications is "the pinnacle of bogosity." Nor can you resell Kindle books, as you can normal ones, even though you have the legal right to do so. This is because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to circumvent the electronic locks that Amazon applies to its e-books.

• Amazon has even locked Kindle users out of their own Kindle accounts, for trivial reasons.

Now we find that the books you buy are never really yours, and that enjoying them is a privilege granted and withdrawn by Amazon at publisher behest. No-one who enjoys reading can take comfort in any of this.

Amazon promised that it won't delete customers' books again. But this promise rings hollow as long as it maintains the technical capability to do so. Today's statement, that it is "changing systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances," merely makes one wonder about the circumstances in which it will.

More interesting, however, is another question: "Under what circumstances can Amazon not remove books from customers' devices?"

The answer to that one's easy: don't buy books from Amazon. If your e-books are in a generic format such as plain text, PDF or DOC file, they're not tied into the control system and Amazon has no power to delete them.

On the one hand, you have a locked-down, Kindle-only e-book that you never really own and which Amazon assures us it may delete. On the other hand, anyone can find unencrypted equivalents which can't be remotely deleted, and which work on any competing device. The legitimate product has severe defects clearly not shared by pirated counterparts.

Amazon's mistreatment of its customers makes it look coldly bureaucratic. But Amazon isn't some stone-faced Orwellian villain: it's a corporation exploiting an excellent product. Like Apple before it, it wants to build a transformative monopoly over a new market before anyone else can respond. On its way there, it will seek to control producers, consumers and the medium itself. To Amazon, the various cultural and personal freedoms we associate with books and literature are merely peripheral impediments to its progress.

Of course, there is another alternative. They may be heavy, cumbersome, and even ridiculous. But for now, my hardbacks are staying right where they are.

About Rob Beschizza

Follow Rob @beschizza on Twitter.
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