The rise of subscription services like Netflix and ComicsFix changes our relationship with the culture we consume. As I mentioned way back in the distant past of Monday, I think that this brings great benefits, but also some psychological challenges.
And by ‘psychological challenges’ I don’t just mean cutting through the hype to remember that Amazon aren’t offering the only, or necessarily even the best, subscription service for books (thanks again to Felipe for another useful link).
Part of the appeal of owning our own copies of books is that we know that we can keep them, that we can access them whenever we want. We know that they won’t just disappear, and we’re the ones who control that.
With subscription services we have to trust someone else to keep those books available for us. That involves letting go of some control, which can be difficult and daunting.
This isn’t just about letting go of control, it’s about letting go of the need for a sense of ownership. At the risk of revealing what a ridiculous hippy I am, I really do think that there’s value in letting go of a need to own things in favour of focusing on doing things. It’s about seeing life as a matter of experience rather than accumulation, and it runs counter to a lot of the habits we build up from very early on in life.
This isn’t a clear-cut issue. Accumulating and ownership can lead to some great experiences, and up until now they were the best way to ensure access to an experience like instant access to your favourite books. Disentangling the two is difficult, and I think that’s why the shift to using more subscriptions might become a generational one, as people grow up with different habits.
Not being a dickhead about it
In the same way that some people are very attached to old patterns of collection and ownership, others are becoming very attached to the potential of our electronic future. I’ve seen a lot of this in debates over the merits of e-books, and particularly the on-going Amazon/Hachette squabble. Those in favour of new models start to attack those who cling to old ways of working, because they feel frustrated at the pace of change.
But attacking someone else’s choices just because they don’t match yours isn’t being right. It’s being a dickhead.
I love my growing collection of e-books. The writer of this article likes Scribd’s subscription service. My dad loves his shelves and shelves of cheap Penguin paperbacks. My friend Ben loves his collection of classic August Derlath printed editions, some of which are probably worth more as individual volumes than my whole Kindle collection.
All these different relationships with books are perfectly valid. I think that letting go of owning them, of disentangling reading from collecting, will be good for a lot of people, me included. But that doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone, or that people who still want publishers to create nice hardbacks are in the wrong.
We can all benefit from making some adjustments to this new age. And the hardest adjustment may be not trying to make everyone think the same way we do.